To My Students, 30 July 2015

Students and scholars,

 

We are at the end of this portion of your journey through one area and one approach to knowledge called “philosophy.”  I have barely shown you a glimpse, and a whirlwind one at that, of the history of the subject and have attempted to raise for you both some central themes of this approach – this life that is not quite living, but theorizing so that we may live better – and have given you as much context for each central idea as was possible.

 

Why the contextual material?  To help put you in the place of each individual philosopher that created the theories they did because each was in a time of crisis: A crisis of having the ground drop from beneath them in some essential sense, a moment of deep and radical doubt, and each had to search for something true and solid from which to begin because the earlier way had failed in some way.  The thinker could no longer place any vital faith, a faith they could live from in whatever ideas had held sway previously.

 

For Descartes, for example, the older Aristotelian version of knowledge and reality would no longer do – it did not support the advent of modern science as Galileo and others had discovered.  So he set about pulling into himself to locate something indubitable, a solid piece of “ground” from which he could stand and work his way back, clearly, without doubt, to what is knowable.

 

From there, philosophy moved on in a conversation with the earlier versions of reality and Descartes new version and modern philosophy became what it is now.  And your world changed in ways you cannot imagine as yet… it became the place in history you live.

 

And, yet, there is more to be done… evermore there will always be more to say and do and learn and you are a part of that, willingly or not.  I have given you some tools for the task, or shown them to you, suggested more than recommended.  Because history, your circumstance, your time and place has imposed a destiny upon each of you; and within that destiny, you must choose who to become, who you will be, must be in this very strange moment that, itself, is another moment of crisis in history.

 

Moments of crisis are dangers and opportunities, simultaneously (the Chinese character for “crisis” is a combination of two other characters: “danger” and “opportunity” to show its double face – your choice between the two paths).

 

Who you will choose to become is not provided – you must choose it for yourself; you must, as the poet Pindar wrote so enigmatically in ancient times, “Become who you are.”  The limits to the choice is provided by your historical circumstance against which you must push, be creative, write out your autobiography in actions and choices, in what you choose to value, what you struggle against and reject.

 

No one may choose for you.

 

Many of us grew up in circumstances that, if we allowed others to make our choices – first, they will choose poorly; secondly, they will choose whatever is convenient to them, what will give them the most benefit; and they will dispose of you as soon as you are no longer useful.  Slavery by another name.

 

The liberal arts – and philosophy is a liberal art – is one of those things widely misunderstood in our age, if not dismissed and devalued.  Partly, this is because of the changes in the interpretation of words over time.

 

“Liberal,” in this sense, does not mean that practicing these things will turn you into a political liberal (but it may have that effect for some).  “Liberal” means “freeing” – the practice of freeing you from enslavement from to the hidden chains your circumstance and culture laid on you as a child: ignorance; a fear of asking questions; the acceptance of popular mythologies and lies taken for reality; common opinions and prejudices.

 

The “art” part is it is a method of introducing you to a genuine culture, a healing of soul, of deficiencies, teaching you how to teach yourself; it introduces you to a tradition of inquiry and curiosity and questioning in the search for truth, goodness, beauty.

 

The “liberal arts” are the arts that free you to perform your mission in life which you must choose and arm you to perform it, perform it well, to be good at the task of being human, to change your world, transform your fraction of history, to work together and understand you have allies around you now and people from a distant past you are as yet unaware of… go seek out your allies.

The “job” you do for money may just be a means to the end of performing your mission; if you are fortunate, it will itself be a part of your mission itself.  Aim for that latter goal and use the other jobs as a bridge to get closer to being an effective agent in changing your world.

 

My time in this age is passing.  I am a relic of a past age; my time, in a certain way, as an effective agent of change by action, has come and gone to some degree – this time is yours. My mission is to prepare you, to place my bets on you.  No matter where you came from, your background, what people expect or don’t expect from you, how they judge you, look down at you because of your past – that is pure unadulterated foolishness.  You are who you make yourself.

 

I came from similar circumstances and achieved far, far more than anyone ever would have or could have expected.  I have changed parts of the world – at least a little – that people thought were unchangeable.  If I, of as little worth and background as I have, can do this, you can do better, go further, do more, and work together to make this age closer to something worth living in.  I have this faith.  It is why I teach.

 

This will require patience and a great deal of labor; it will require you to believe in yourself and one another more than you ever have; and it will require you to teach yourself many things college cannot.  A degree from college means you are now ready to learn, not that you have much by way of genuine knowledge.  You have the skills to teach yourself, to read, to travel back in time through books or search around for people who make sense, and to sort the better from the worth, the more likely true from the probably false.

 

Effort:  Nothing worth doing is achieved by any other means.  It will not fall into your lap.  Should you have the great good fortune for it to do so, you still will not know what to do with your windfall without the effort of preparation.  Look around you at the many famous people who ruin their lives because fortune smiled on them and gave them a great deal of money and power: How many of them actually live good, exemplary lives?  What will they be remembered for in future ages?  What will future ages be like because of their actions?

 

Do better than that, in your own ambit, your own sphere of influence.  If you do so, you will be worth more than all the wealthy wastrels of our age combined – because you aimed at something more serious and difficult and tried.

 

Trying your best is all any human can ever expect of you, including yourself.  Take yourselves seriously.  You are of infinite worth and your point of view and your mission cannot be provided to this world by anyone else.

 

And patience:  You labor will require a lifetime – sometimes it will bring joy and sometimes it will require pain.  But if done in the service of genuinely valuable standards and goals, you will become a living example of what it is to live a good human life.  And there is, in this entire universe, nothing better we know of.  If you fall or fail, stand back up.  If you are perplexed, return to the battle and find what you seek even if you never quite lay hold of it.  That is success in the most intimate sense.

 

I will miss each and every one of you and have valued my time with you.  You each taught me more than I taught you, but you will never know how… and that is as it should be.

 

I leave you with the words to an old Kate Bush song to think about – poetry often says far more than a loquacious old man can get out in prose:

 

I see the people working

And see it working for them

And so I want to join in

But then I find it hurts me

Some say that knowledge is

Something sat in your lap

Some say that knowledge is

Something that you never have

I see the people happy

So can it happen for me?

‘Cause when I am unhappy

There’s nothing that can move me

Some say that knowledge is

Something that you never have

Some say that knowledge is

Something sat in your lap

Some say that heaven is hell

Some say that hell is heaven

I must admit, just when I think I’m king

(I just begin)

Just when I think I’m king, I must admit

(I just begin)

Just when I think I’m king

(I just begin)

I’ve been doing it for years

My goal is moving near

It says, “Look! I’m over here”

Then it up and disappears

Some say that knowledge is

Something sat in your lap

Some say that knowledge is ho ho ho ho

I want to be a lawyer

I want to be a scholar

But I really can’t be bothered

Ooh, just gimme it quick

Gimme it, gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme

Some say that knowledge is ho ho ho

Some say that knowledge is ho ho ho

Some say that heaven is hell

Some say that hell is heaven

I must admit, just when I think I’m king

(I just begin)

Just when I think I’m king, I must admit

(I just begin)

Just when I think everything’s going great

(I just begin)

I get the break

Hey, I’m gonna take it all

(I just begin)

When I’m king, just begin

In my dome of ivory

A home of activity

I want the answers quickly

But I don’t have no energy

I hold a cup of wisdom

But there is nothing within

My cup, she never overfloweth

And ’tis I that moan and groaneth

Some gray and white matter

(Give me the karma, mama)

I’m coming up the ladder

Hey, I’m coming up the ladder

(A jet to Mecca)

Up the ladder

(Tibet or Jeddah)

(To Salisbury, a monastery)

(The longest journey)

Across the desert

Across the weather

Across the elements

Across the water

KATE BUSH

“Sat in Your Lap”

30 July 2015

Richard Van Ingram

 

 

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Where Am I?

I’m old and I’m tired. Don’t look as old as I am nor do I look nearly as old as I feel. I’m afraid, as someone far wiser and observant said to me the other day, “Richard, you were born in the wrong age.” As a feeling or suspicion, this has been my experience for the majority of my life, being out of place in time. But I’ve never really been certain at all if I was born too soon or born too late. Maybe either would do. Living anachronisms have no choice in this.

If too late, I’m pointing backwards to something I find valuable in a bygone time that, perhaps, would provide some antidote, or an element in the antidote to the secret poisons at work in this time — and I do that. Not well and from no great position of influence, but I do that work.

If I am too early, I’m announcing the possibility of a better moment in history, a moment we could choose something better, a time that will come long after me. I don’t mourn that I won’t be here to see it, only that it may not be chosen and probably will not. It is only a possibility — and I am rather pessimistic by inclination.

That part of the task depends upon others and my part in things is to persuade a tiny few to pay attention to the injustices, the sloppy morality, the carelessness of the times, the wild-eyed extremism of this particular time… the urge to split into tribes as no overall effective values (good or bad or mixed) hold the people of my country or world together. Nothing beyond some utterly vague desire to “survive” (as what? as whom? at what price?) and to accumulate worthless trash.

To live by lies and off conspiratorial mythologies of the basest sort. To live without actual philosophy while science, as powerful a tool as humans have ever constructed to deal with physical reality, is mistaken for the entirety of the knowable mainly because it gives a basis for our magical, ubiquitous technologies.
And the technologies — a “technosphere” – substitute for the raw reality we call “nature” humans can no longer live within with any assurances. If we ever could.

.A power-driven nihilism — valueless, except beyond whatever is expedient, whatever gains more power, pseudo-values abandoned when no longer useful.

In the end,if pursued far enough, it will cut off even science at the knees and make it an impossibility by destroying or starving out the values and freedom of thought required for science to even function or exist. Science does not give us, guarantee, or explore these values, much less theories of knowledge… it is the task of philosophy, history, the arts, even proper theology to provide these and safeguard them.

Can you imagine a region ruled by ISIS producing a genuine science? Certainly, technologies of control and destruction based on old scientific advances, but no new theoretical imagination required to look into the unknown about the physical world. No peace or civilization required for such, Or our country ruled by religious evangelical fundamentalism which would effectively accomplish the same by misuse of law under theocracy and an economical libertarianism that makes all subservient to the wealthy, to the grim grip of gold and the need for immediate profit?

No planning for the future: Future ages have no meaning for a people who have no plans to be around for them or care for their unknown, unknowable progeny.

My face forward, that’s what I dimly see coming our way, in outline. Rough and shadowy, that’s the Beast slouching towards Bethlehem out of the night into dawn.

Were I in the past, I could have sounded the alarm and done a small portion of the labor, perhaps, to give us a better present. If I were born in the moment of the aftermath of the disaster I guess at here, I could work to rebuild. As it is, I am a child of this moment, someone whose voice is small and drowned out in the din of louder, brasher, more aggressive calls to politics and action without forethought, enthusiasms of all sorts, violence, makeshift immediate responses to long-term problems that are akin to patching up a dam that will burst eventually without actual replacement of the entire structure by something designed with the future in mind.

That would require a collective, sustained work of effort and cooperation between all disciplines and seriously reviewing, reconciling as many varied perspectives as possible. That requires tolerance, even curiosity and a sense of mystery and a willingness to suspend belief in one’s pet prejudices to see the past and present living accomplishments, expert or not, of many with fresh eyes.

As is, I am Janus, a face to the past and face to the future, out of place in time, a doorway, a liminal being. Neither here nor there, but something that might allow a passage.

A passage for whom? I am unsure… me, maybe, anyone else who might listen or care to add to my near-insignificant body or work, my students – or a few of them, no one. I do not know. I am in an odd place temporally, uncomfortable with it, and my attempts at philosophy, writing, and art derive from the discomfort.

There is no grandiosity in this; just a solemness, taking stock of where and who I am, partially, and I have to take stock occasionally to find my location.

26 July 2015
Richard Van Ingram

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A MEDITATION ON DREAMS

The world is hard on dreamers.

In my country, we speak much of the value of dreams — “The American Dream;” “pursue your dreams,” we tell our children.  “Dare to dream.”

It’s often a lie.

We find out the older we get: one of the deepest secrets of the USA is we have little love for dreams or visions or inspiration or genuine creativity.  Inventiveness and cleverness, perhaps, as long as we get our iPhone out of it or some free web entertainment.  Ah, and the cash — always the cash.

But an original idea?  A life lived by its own best lights, it’s destiny worked out beneath secret constellations meant for it alone?

Insanity.

A memory from decades ago that’s stuck with me:  I was a kid in high school and thrown in detention hall for some foolishness or another.  The pinch-faced teacher put in charge told us to take paper out and subtract one from the number 1000 until we arrived at zero… thinking this would take nigh forever.   She was used to a poorer class of convict, I presume.

I began with 1000, skipped a line, and began making columns, each skipping a line.  In each column I wrote downward “9” through “0”…

1000

999

998

997…

A few sheets and the addition of the requisite “-1″s later, I had zero.  Maybe it took half an hour.  Allegedly, I could leave after that, but the woman was angry it hadn’t taken quite the “forever” she had in mind.  She made me stay until everyone else was finished, which was all evening  (two hours, really).

I sat in a desk facing the wall allowed to do nothing — no paper, no pens or pencils, no books.  Nothing except look at an inspirational poster across from me, tears of frustration stinging my eyes as she’d lied, was upset herself, and the reason I was in detention was I’d done something now completely unimportant, probably unimportant then.  My usual crime was drawing naked women in class or reading a novel instead of doing the make-work.  The place was oppressive, boring, except for history and biology classes, where I happily worked.

The poster.  It was one of those inspirational posters from the 1970s, faded a bit from the sun hitting it through the windows — obviously something to decorate the room, a cheap scrap of wallpaper.  It was a hazy, light blue photo of a forest in fog with a quote from Henry David Thoreau: “March to the beat of a different drummer.”

Well, wasn’t that what I did?!

I hardly “fit in’ — who does when they’re 14, 15?, except my peculiar brand of being a teenager was way off-base and was treated as a pathological condition by many all-too conventional instructors and administrators of that small, lonely mountain school.

“March to the beat of a different drummer?”  Hadn’t I always, Mr. Thoreau?  My eyes were teary, but I held it in and stuffed the feelings down, a life-long habit that eventually resulted in seven ulcers.  No one was paying attention anyway, hunched over their pitiful sheets of paper, scribbling away.

Right there was the quite literal writing on the wall: “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin.”   But who was profaning the sacred vessels: me or this institution of learning; who abused their calling and was weighed in the balance and found wanting, me or this hell of a town?

The library at school and the one at the local college had long been my places of refuge — especially the college.  From there, I haphazardly learned many things by reading actual books: an ancient habit, long neglected, abandoned, and forgotten by the present age I find myself passing through.  For me though, books were the passage to salvation.  From them, I taught myself how to write and what good writing sounds like, especially that difficult art called by Montaigne the “essay”: asking oneself what one knows and answering in a solid, worked out form in ink on paper for others to share.

The philosophe, as well, Voltaire became my smirking, bright-eyed Virgil, Candide my doppleganger.

I learned about drawing and studying the human figure — there were no real art classes at my school as the funding for that was long gone.  Left to explore without guidance, I uncritically passed like a pinball in a hot Bally table through the whole of Western Art History, its implicit ideas, styles, approaches… all of it beautiful, strange, exciting to my innocent eyes; my own drawing seemed a pitifully poor thing by comparison, something I was going to have to work hard at to get where I wanted to go.

Hence I drew nude women — a difficulty, a challenge, and obsession once a young artist sees Velazquez’s “Rokeby Venus” or the sculptures of the ancient Greeks or Diego Rivera’s lush murals or Botticelli’s “Primavera” or Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love”.

Or the wonderful, mysterious young ladies that surround any young man… or teenaged boy on the way to being a young man.

And just where did I want to go?  Far away from that violent, ignorant, prejudiced place into which I was born and very far from my own violence, anger, hurt, deep flaws, and lack of self-discipline.

I had my own dreams, my own drummer.  I could not be myself without these things, without moving toward the distant bright, white star that called me to go further, to separate myself from how I was raised to become… more.

Finding some place where there was room for someone like me and my drive to create and understand and then actually performing those activities as best I could — those were the vague, grandiose outlines of my vision.

Yes, I weighed both myself as I was and that place as it was in the balance and found both wanting.  But I could only work to repair and prepare one of us — myself — so that’s what I set about doing.

And still do.

That poster on the wall was a challenge aimed to me; I took it as such.  I’ve no idea anyone ever took those words quite that seriously who’d ever been stuck in that merciless little room.  But I did because I had the eyes to see and decipher at least that much, sight born of a deep neediness and desire to fill up what I lacked. The need to grow, to be more, to do the best I could… the need to hear those words that day, that moment.

Your destiny, your dream, is yours as mine is mine.  You have your own particular calling as I do.  You will pass through many “jobs” on the way to it, perhaps, and some of them may actually be useful for keeping body and soul together, support a family, and allowing one freedom to pursue who you truly need to become.  If you are terribly fortunate, you will find jobs that align with your destiny, jobs that are not merely jobs but part of who you truly are and performing them makes you truly yourself.

The world will often oppose your dream; it will tempt you to settle for less, for being entertained into a stupor, even for a great sum of money doing something that you really do not wish to do at all that consumes your time — and your life is nothing except how you spend your time, the quality of your choices over time.

There is always a substitute dream that is no dream at all, but a prison — even if the prison is a comfortable one.

You will choose as you believe best.  No one can make you do otherwise.

But — when you make your choices, remember the words of a person far wiser than I, a humble philosopher called Epictetus:

“Do not sell yourselves cheaply.”

14 July 2015

Richard Van Ingram

 

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