Radical Hope


In his book of this name, Jonathan Lear depicts the plight of the Crow as they lost their traditional locus as plains Indians and as their ancestral narrative of a peoples lost grip. Without a vibrant story of their past and future, the Crow lost all sense of identity. They had been  peoples who shared a tribal, defining narrative.  Now, as Lear interviews the remaining leaders it turns out that the prevailing sense is they are without bearings, without a shared sense of past and future, no longer a people.

This is the background of what Lear calls Radical Hope.

Despite utter loss of bearings, of a sense of shared past and expected future, individual Crow may muster a radical hope that survival is an option.  Not knowing what that future will be, knowing only that it won’t be a continuation of the past, they must survive with a hope unhinged from any knowable future.  Rather than drop into despair and unmitigated extinction, Radical Hope can be a survival power as surviving former Crow move into an unknown.

This is relevant to the present pandemic.

The “new normal” after the pandemic subsides will not have a rough resemblance to life as we knew it before the pandemic. BC, before Corina. It’s not just that more workers will work from home (which will impact transportation industries from car sales to train service).  We’ll have new patterns of care for the elderly, of communal worship, of unemployment insurance,  of hugging and grieving.

No one knows what these patterns will be like. Hence the the necessity, at this juncture, of Radical Hope.

From the most recent Hedgehog Review:

If social pathologies like the restive pursuit of wealth begin to lose their grip some ideas and practices could simply become unintelligible while others become possible. Ignoring one’s neighbors could start to feel absurd. Failing to recognize the equal worth of the disabled, the sick or the unemployed may seem abhorrent. Denying the interconnectedness of our health will be out of step with reality.  The parameters for virtue and shame could be refashioned, and the prospects for new standards for both will be heightened.

We are confronting the transformation of a culture that was already fragile and, in some senses, broken; the virtues attached to social roles, already under strain, are being scrambled. What it means to be an excellent citizen, parent, teacher, employer, banker, journalist, politician or intellectual was perhaps never certain but now even the pretense of solidity is giving way.

Those who excelled in the collapsing way of life may be the least prepared to cope with the new. As standards of courage, honor, integrity and esteem are recast, those who have clung to fraternity, compassion and justice may find themselves ascendant. For most of us, the challenge will be to respond humbly enough to discover abandoned virtues.

 For the Crow, the necessary extension of practical reason was spurred by enigmatic dreams and oracles. As Lear writes, “Precisely because they are about to endure a historical rupture, the detailed texture of life on the other side has to be beyond their ken. In the face of such a cultural challenge, dreaming provides an unusual resource. It enables the dreamers to imagine a radically new future without becoming too detailed about what this future will be.” The source has to transcend the crumbling context because the latter no longer offers suitable answers. Lacking a concrete conception of the future good life, we need “commitment to the idea that the goodness of the world transcends one’s limited and vulnerable attempts to understand it.”

Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have hope as yet lack the concepts to understand it.” It is hope that clings to the prospect of flourishing again.






I won’t say “old age.”

Perhaps I mean “aging” — a process, a span of time with its own dynamics.

What are these dynamics?

There’s the matter of memory, the matter of happenings day to day, and the matters of foreboding — or lack of it — foretastes about what’s to come,  or instead, the mood of the present.

Age is a time for looking back — on a life, on a family, on a vocation, a profession.

I look back on a wife, a son, a daughter-in-law and two wonderful grand kids. I look back on professional accomplishment and extracurricular satisfactions: travel and music.

I look back on the life of a professor — 40 years of that — and of scholarly writing — many books, many articles translated into many languages. From the vantage of age I look back as I might look back on travels to distant lands: with interest but little real engagement.

These are episodes in a life no longer grippingly mine.

Age offers the gift of mostly pleasant memory but not a portrait of who I now am in age, looking back.

Beyond backward looking, age also has its day to day.

When all is going smoothly, it’s a time for enjoyment — enjoying a community orchestra, a blues band, a choir, a new friend to the north, a couple who invite me to lunch or dinner.

It’s a time to phone family 3,000 miles away, and daily to Skype a sweetheart 6,000 miles away. It’s a time for daily walks for cappuccino and enjoying vistas of the Bay.

Apart from enjoyments, age also has its foretaste of decline.

Today I cross four lanes with a yellow stripe in the middle. I’ve checked that cars to my left and right are a sufficient distance away. Before retirement and for a number of years after, this crossing would be a no-brainer. If I miscalculated the speed of approaching cars, I’d compensate with a skip and minor acceleration. In age, I have no such reserves. I focus on not stumbling. Acceleration is out of the question.

I’m relatively tall. I used to pride myself negotiating city sidewalks never to be passed.  Today folks with baby carriages pass me. There are innumerable tastes of physical decline. Tying shoes is a bother.

The redeeming qualities of age?  Or aging?

I’m a non-competitive writer now. The vita doesn’t count. I enjoy daily writing, much of it arriving on this blog.  I don’t worry about how many “follow” me or make comments. I self-publish books of collected reflections and a memoir, to boot. Self-publishing, I bypass the scrutiny of editorial boards or critics. Writing is recreation, not making a public splash.

I discover the purely personal daily pleasure of posting photos on Face Book — oddities, landscapes, turtle or fox, Netanyahu or neanderthal, The Wailing Wall or Fenway Park. All for the fun of it. The world’s a crazy and wonderful place.  Just look around. These are visual tickles, seldom politics.

I can discover a new friend in her eighties and another in her nineties and still another in his nineties, and one in her thirties. I can let these friendships flow in wondrous directions — something that couldn’t have happened before entering the pleasures of age.

I can listen for hours in rapture to an extraordinary young pianist, not for a moment wondering if I should be getting down to a chore or obligation.

So the story of age isn’t just loss of speed on the sidewalk or fond memories.

My “existential identity,” I now think, is a writer swept up in the wonder of many things and of personal encounters, and giving lyrical, spiritual renderings of these.

With age I enjoy new and old friends, morning walks for cappuccino and chats with the servers. Affectionate verbal sparing with the Italian guy who runs the laundromat and is angling to become a priest. Chatting  with my house cleaner about her kids and her boyfriend. Enjoying the company of orchestra friends who play out of pleasure, not to strut their musical stuff.

In short, whatever my past, I’m no longer a professional doing his job. I enjoy a fluid identity, enjoy others and enjoy writing of things close to the heart, as they arrive, one by one. I do nothing for a purpose.

If the decades of maturity are struggles for accomplishment and fulfillment of duty, the decades of age allows enjoying things previously overlooked and of infinite worth.


Postscript: I’m grateful for the good health (for one my age) and for the financial means that have so far followed me, leaving space for reflection.



Screen Shot 2020-05-25 at 6.38.57 PM*

**Yo Yo Ma plays all of Bach’s Cello suites on a Sunday afternoon, three and a half hours, on NPR.

**Igor Levit, one of the great young pianists of the world, hears that Berlin, where he lives, is cancelling all concerts. He immediately goes on twitter to announce a live streaming concert to begin the next day.

**The DaPonte String Quartet live streams discussions and their music for Portland area residents.

Shall we call this

musical donation,

solidarity through music,

sympathy through lyric?




A towel that greets me mornings by the sink has a morning message etched top and bottom: “Gratitude is Heaven.”

I can gaze at that wisdom-signature any day, whether I am inhabiting hell, heaven, or a nether land between. And taken gently, it can change the morning.

It urges me to consider what might be my gratitudes, not because God demands this of a morning, but because certainly, at least many mornings, I have an ache for heaven and a displeasure with hell.

Is there always something good to be thankful for? Early morning is a good time to consider  — for if at all possible, I want to stride into the day upbeat rather than somber and despairing.

Is there ever a morning when I can’t think of a single thing to be thankful for?

To hear the whisper “Gratitude is Heaven” asks me to pause for a bit.

Do I welcome sunlight or rain? Do I welcome the friend I’ll meet for lunch? Do I have a rush of excitement as I think of a promised telephone call from my granddaughter?

Heaven can come in tiny pieces: a ray of sunlight, an opening tulip.

These elicit my gratitude. They give me a glimpse of heaven.

I can use the morning reminder, the morning dose of uplifting gratitude.


Make Music and Compose


People nowadays think scientists are there to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc. to entertain them.  That the latter have something to teach them: that never occurs to them.                                                                                                  –Wittgenstein, 1940


What a pleasure to join this mad endeavor to make sense of other, self, and affect over common and uncommon ground, speaking in and out of religion and philosophy, political science and history, literature and poetry,  My muse will be poetic, tracking  passionate speech in the dark woods of a life.

As death neared and lights threatened to go out for the last time, Socrates confided to his friends, “I’ve often had a dream, it says ‘Socrates, make music and compose.’ ” For Socrates and his friends, to make music was to respond to a muse. In his last lecture, Socrates intimates that we should heed words flowing in dreams, night dreams that instruct. It’s almost a Biblical sense of learning.

And he intimates further that his dream (not reason or critique) taught him that to gain wisdom, at least in matters of the spirit, he might be required to change gears.

In matters of self and of soul, of affect and of passion, of other and of community (and of first and last things, say of mortality and immortality), there may be a time to die to argument in the public square and in the halls of ivy and in the chambers of government.

Prose abates, accumulation of knowledge abates, critique abates – What then? — We listen for a poetic muse, for poetry, music, speaking through dreams.

I may dream and make music in my off hours, but Socrates is giving a last lecture.  So, I must ask, what would it be like to bring a poetic muse into humanities classrooms?

Could speech arise there transforming or superseding knowledge and critique?  As we take up passion, self, and community, can passion, wisdom, and poetry abet efforts to “make music and compose” – not as an entertainment, but in the sober interest of insight and understanding?

Here is the Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai:

 How do the visions of the prophets see me?

The burning bush sees me as a man extinguished but alive.

And what does Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot say about me?

Look down, there is a man who has no wings.

Nor the face of a lion, an ox, or an eagle.

And he can walk in only one direction at a time.

He has no radiance about him,

        no brightness the color of amber,

Just darkness within. This is his soul.

But if we ever fall from our heights and crash to the ground,

He will pick up the scattered pieces,

And all his life, he will keep trying to put us together again,

To restore us, to raise us back up to the skies

I am addressed as in a dream, poetically ad in the first person: Is my soul dark? Why should I want wings? Do I need the face of a lion? Am I burned out? Do I try to mend broken gods? Why would I mend them?

And why do I think that I can see me the way the visions of the prophets see me? Am I figured or refigured by their visions?  How can I possibly ask these soul-exposing questions in front of a class, or or alone in the dead of night?




Should we believe the heavens can grant us a kind of rich and strange synchronicity – a moment when lives and minds lost to each other for decades suddenly, dramatically, cross paths in a way rich and strange?

I wouldn’t ask if I weren’t now under the spell of such synchronicity. The story, no doubt full of minor errors in dating and locations, is this.

From 1964-1968, I was a doctoral student at UC Santa Barbara. I had gone there, from Michigan, specifically to dodge the analytical-mania that haunted philosophy departments at the time. Herbert Fingarette was the magnet.  The department could be billed as pursuing “humanistic philosophy,” allowing existentialism, psychoanalysis, and film studies into its purview.

In 1966 D. arrived, also attracted to the open bent of the graduate program. I knew him only slightly. As I burrowed into my dissertation writing I became notably asocial.

Fast forward 50 — 50 — years. After decades teaching philosophy and living in the Bay Area, across from San Francisco, after two years teaching in Israel and then moving to the Maine coast, I discovered in the “comments” section of this blog – to my great surprise – a telling remark from D.

My reflection that day was on facing death. D. commented. A familiar name but from my distant past. He was brief. He promised (and delivered the next week) a longish personal note filling out his brief comment. We were alike, writing pensively about death.

The synchronicity is discovering how close we are now in thought, expression and existential comportment despite decades of separation. It was as if our writing was an exchange between true friends – as if we could have been fast friends through the past 50 years. All this emerges despite 3,000 miles of separation and 50 years of silence.

This was — is — a soul-shaking synchronicity.


Instilling Intimacy


I’ve been lucky to have Dean Dettloff, in a series of interviews, lead me through my ways of reading, teaching, thinking, writing.  The two posts following this one explore how my philosophical-literary writing is lyrical. The post you’re reading right now focuses on teaching and classrooms. Dean begins with a “wow” reaction to the two posts that come next.

Dean Dettloff: Wow. I feel as though you’re already performing a kind of intimacy-refinement on me in these interviews! The themes of renewal you trace are neither bound to psychological experience nor public consciousness, though they deal with both.
You clearly have a heart for interpersonal relationships and societal healing, which seems to bleed into your philosophy of education and a desire for these kinds of ideas to reach a public audience instead of staying within the academy.
Would you discuss the way these sensibilities have shaped your role as an educator, both in the academy and outside of it?

“Instilling intimacy” captures something that ought to occur in teaching and learning, especially in the humanities, where I teach. We need to instill intimacy because we’ve repressed intimacy in our lives — and we’ve repressed it in the books we pick up in the humanities that deal with the elusive non-factual things we should embrace for the health of our spirit.

This ideal gets lost in the bustle about “learning objectives,” about generating knowledge for the social-industrial-military complex—the specialized research university as a knowledge-generating machine.

In my view (I’m in a decided minority), the best humanities education is intimate. It’s paternal, avuncular, maternal, fraternal, “sisterly.”  Platonic “care of the soul” is front and center. Fact and theory aren’t everything. You and I can discover (and rediscover) the truths of “intimacy” – let intimacy happen — in the company of mentors: Kierkegaard, Berdyaev, Basho, Nishitani, countless others.

Just this morning I received an email from a student in an on-line class I teach (I ask everyone to send me emails regularly as they read through various assigned texts). I had assigned Henry Bugbee’s The Inward Morning: Philosophical Explorations in Journal Form for an introductory on-line class called “Religion, Meaning, and Knowledge.” My student writes:

Reading The Inward Morning has been one of the most profound experiences in my life… Philosophy is a step into the confessional rather than a dispassionate look at external subjects… There is no more direct a path to the evidence as to how the exposition of my personal philosophy affects those around me than to put it out there and await the reaction.

I was most struck by the idea that wilderness can be viewed not as literal but as a construct…a place out in the world or internally where to experience true recognition one must be open to the most basic examination. Being open to what at once seems inconsequential but on second viewing . . . —the tiny detail explains the whole.

I want to write [in the upcoming writing assignment] about the unseen hand that guides us to places that were previously unimagined. Bugbee alluded to this in his writing about being on the boat during the war. How he had come to be in that place through a set of unseen actions. How even the most mundane, which at first seems beneath notice, can nonetheless be fundamental to the journey of self-discovery.

 Ultimately, this trek through the wilderness is about sensory awareness. Moving outside the sheltered world to look for, even anticipate, the unexpected. Every moment is one in which a new reality can be born. Living life in this manner requires a leap of faith, a certain bravery and an openness. What is really happening in the world around me and what does that say about me?

Well, what more could one hope for as a teacher?

This is a model of intimacy-exchange between text and reader, and then student and teacher. I shared the moment this student shapes through passing it on in a mass e-mail to the rest of the class.

By and large I think the academy and departments in humanities have abandoned the allure of such learning-teaching exchange—or abandoned giving it much publicity or reinforcement. After all, don’t parents want to see classes that lead to corporate tangible success?

Of course, technical training and skill-acquisition of the sort physics and economics can provide are important. But the humanities ought to have care for our souls. The loss of an articulate expression of this calling is unsettling.

Imagine a department meeting where the dean has put pedagogic practice in the spotlight.  This is what I could expect:

Professor Mooney, what are you saying! That you throw a book out to a class and wait to see what happens? No lectures, no tests on information acquired, no honing of necessary skill! Do we pay you for encouraging free-form emotional response?

I hope I’d say, Yes.  I’m paid for this because the best teaching in my field encourages free emotional-cognitive-intimate response. In other contexts I’d lecture on backgrounds to this or that text or writer or movement, and comment on modes of analysis. But I’d want all that to be propaedeutic to the deeper sort of learning expressed in the student’s email I’ve quoted at length.

I shared this student’s email (name removed) through mass-mailing, and then added a preface from me:

From time to time, a book really works into your soul, reminding you that you have one. Encountering THE INWARD MORNING was like that years ago—decades ago—for me. And from time to time, as I meet a class and pass on the books that have shaped my sense of things in the deepest ways, I catch sight of at least some in class having the books work an excitement, intimacy, and sorrow into their souls; the books are reminding them (and reminding me) that they have souls.

The class learned something “factual” about a book, and they were alerted to themes in it that they might have missed. But more important, I hope they get a visceral feel of a fellow student being deeply moved by a text (or parts of it), and that they shouldn’t be ashamed of being deeply moved themselves by texts.

They might see why their professor, somewhat eccentrically, believes that such “intimate” experiences are most valuable.  They may even come to try to reciprocate in intimate response.

Dean, you ask about the reach of “education-as-intimacy” occurring outside the University or College.

I’m writing from Israel, now, and I have a dear friend, also a Kierkegaard scholar, who gives what they call here “Public Lectures.” These are not sponsored by any academic institution but presented by the sort of management agency that in the US would organize rock-music tours.

People buy tickets for a series on all sorts of subjects: “Love,” “Power,” “Ayn Rand,” “Hannah Arendt,” “Kierkegaard,” “Spinoza,” “Desire,” a new movie-release. It’s a kind of night school without assignments, tests, attendance checks, or degrees.

So, there’s a way the sort of intimate teaching-learning I value can flourish outside the academy. But culturally—regrettably—it doesn’t seem to be part of “The American Way.” In a sense learning is corporate, intimate-community based among Ashkenazi Jews.

Personally, my sensibilities’ provenance is dark or shaded. I’ve found myself up to my neck, in a good way, in writing and speaking in a voice saturated with certain interests or ideals, vulnerabilities and desires.

I can tell you how I happened to encounter Thoreau, Dostoevsky, or the ‘Existential Wittgenstein.’ But I’d be hard pressed to say what in my background prepared me for these encounters.

They’re just flesh and blood and soul at this point. Once these ideals, sensibilities, intimacies and desires become my flesh and voice, they are just me. They inescapably shape the part I play in academic, family, and musical life—willy-nilly.