Why Teach Humanities?

I teach a religion class that requires weekly “check-ins,” short responses to some passage in the reading assigned. This Spring students have just finished reading Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk. 

Here is a response that confirms my sense that great (and even minor) humanities texts can carry unexpected riches, can probe the soul in ways no one can foresee.

It also illustrates how the genesis of a powerful insight can be shrouded in mist and confusion and unclarity. Here is the email, signature removed:

Professor Mooney,

As I near the end of “Cloister Walk”, I realize I have struggled to find passages that mean something to me. Nevertheless, the book has been endlessly interesting.

Below is an excerpt from a reaction I had to an early quote in the book.

           Norris: “I felt as hard and dry as the bristly grasses of early fall, as exhausted as the drought-            stricken trees around me. Then Gregory reminded me of the greatness of souls, how their true strength can emerge in the worst of times, when the known world is collapsing. ‘My mind divided’, he said of himself, ‘torn to pieces by so many problems.’”

I could not find my own words to better describe my current state, and the country’s current state. I write this a week after Donald Trump has become president. I have participated in two different protests in a matter of one week. I feel emotionally exhausted, lost, confused, left wondering what values are held by the people of this country – the people I know and love.

I am a policy studies student who graduates in a few months. My entire plan of probable careers is shifting. My mother is a teacher in Michigan. She has dealt with the atrocities of DeVos long before she became a household name throughout the country. She fears for her job, her school, and her students. I have friends who work at Catholic Charities. They are unsure how long they will have their jobs. They go to work every day, trying to comfort the fears, confusion, and sadness of their clients. Several of their clients are separated from husbands, wives, or children, and because of current policies, will continue to be separated. My partner is from Turkey and is Muslim. He is afraid that he will be forced to leave. I am afraid he will be humiliated by my government, mistreated by my fellow citizens, and possibly be told he must leave. I worry for what that means for him, for me, for this whole country.


This shows how a thoughtful writer (Norris) can filter her own experience through a piece of Scripture and prompt her reader (our student) to filter her own experience through a text previously unknown.

The humanities give us access to modulations of experience that prompt modulations of experience. That modulation needn’t clarify much more than a region of life that resists easy clarification. We resonate with times past and that makes presents vivid, in melancholy or joy or both.

How to be immortal

                                 –The truth is cruel, but it can be loved, and it makes free those who love it.

The human mind is not merely animal, not merely absorbed in the felt transition from one state of life to another. It is partly synthetic, intellectual, contemplative, able to look before and after and to see fleeting things at once in their mutual relations, or as Spinoza expressed it, under the form of eternity

A man who understands himself under the form of eternity knows the quality that eternally belongs to him, and knows that he cannot wholly die, even if he would; for when the movement of his life is over, the truth of his life remains. The fact of him is a part forever of the infinite context of facts.

Man alone knows that he must die; but that very knowledge raises him, in a sense, above mortality, by making him a sharer in eternal truth. . .  He becomes a spectator of his own tragedy; he sympathizes so much with the fury of the storm that he has not ears left for the shipwrecked sailor, though that sailor were his own soul. The truth is cruel, but it can be loved, and it makes free those who love it.

From Santayana’s preface to Spinoza’s Ethics and De intellectus emendatione [On the Improvement of the Understanding], J.M. Dent & sons, 1910.

What Thoreau Can Teach Us About Resisting Trump

Here’s an interview with Mark Greif, conducted by Open Source’s Christopher Lydon, found on The Literary Hub, Feb 1, 2017, originally aired on Open Source.

Christopher Lydon: This year marks the 200th birthday of Henry David Thoreau—the radical anarchist from Concord, Massachusetts who said “No” to government in slavery time and in 1849 wrote the everlasting manual for dissidents in the essay Civil Disobedience. Thoreau comes up pointedly in this week when President Trump says he’ll root out undocumented immigrants in what have been declared ‘sanctuary’ cities in states like New York, Massachusetts and California. In one of his fiercest essays, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” from 1856, Thoreau was responding to the news that under the Fugitive Slave Act a black ‘slave preacher’ named Anthony Burns had been captured in Boston and, despite a near-riot of street protest against Federal troops and US Marshals, was returned to bondage in Virginia. “I have lived for the last month,” Thoreau finally wrote, with the sense of having suffered a vast and indefinite loss. At last it occurred to me that what I had lost was a country.” It’s not a precise parallel here, except in the feeling that an essential piece of the country is at risk, again. So I asked the young Thoreauvian, Mark Greif, to remind us of the author of so much American Gospel, the very odd stick from Concord. Mark Greif is a writer and founding editor of the journal n+1. He’s collected his own essays under a title that’s straight out of Thoreau: Against Everything.

Mark Greif: You know Thoreau’s a funny character, and I’ve found myself thinking constantly in the last few days: What would he make of Trump? What would he make of this government? What would he make of millions of people in the streets at the Women’s March? The contention that Thoreau has, the claim he makes over and over again, is always to start with the individual first. Start with yourself. A Thoreauvian vision of Trump, first of all, is to seem him as a great time-waster, a kind of new time-waster-in-chief, someone who will engross our attention and keep us from living our regular lives, noticing our neighbors, noticing what’s right in front of our nose. At the same time it’s very hard to imagine that Thoreau, who so detested the Mexican War and the US invasion of Mexico, who so detested slavery–

CL: Slavery above all really…

MG: …and on other occasions more or less suggested that it was impossible to live in the state of Massachusetts or in the United States as an ordinary person if there was anyone enslaved elsewhere in the United States. Yeah, it’s funny to imagine him now because, on the one hand, I think he would insist, “you must not let this fool, this comedian, this menace take over your ordinary lives. Do what you would do,” and at the same time it seems clear that he would insist, “you can’t live just an ordinary life but have to manifest yourself in some way by conscience in opposition to this state that would engross you or count you or make you part of an ostensible mandate,” let’s say.

CL: Yeah. The beautiful line and the challenge in that “Civil Disobedience” essay is that the individual of moral conviction and action is already a majority of one. That’s what you’ve got to cultivate, and that’s what will change history, but how?

MG: Well, it’s funny. Thoreau works it through as a set of puzzles, and that essay “Civil Disobedience” has meant so much to so many.

CL: To the world.

MG: To the world. Martin Luther King. But also, it’s still, I think, provides the kind of template for what people call “direct action,” “civil disobedience” now, but it’s a very puzzling essay because on the one hand, he does say just as you say, “forget about majorities. Forget about putting together a majority.”

CL: Even forget about law, compared to truth.

MG: Absolutely. Put the right before the law, and put your single conscience before the state, before every other voter let’s say. At the same time, there is this insistence why should that work? Right? I mean, why should a majority of one exist, or why should it matter if any one person withdraws from the Union, withdraws him or herself from the state, the United States, Massachusetts, etc. In part, his insistence I think is that it works if you make yourself seen, and there’s a real back and forth, you know, with Thoreau between saying, “My life is mine. It only happens once, and the best thing I or anyone can do is to live it is fully and richly as possible. Go to a cabin in the woods if that’s what it takes,” and this other side which suggests that we have to be exemplars for each other and that going to a cabin in the woods is, in some way, not meaningful without a world of people in town saying, “What’s that weird guy doing in the woods?” and without being prepared to explain yourself to them whenever they ask.

“Civil Disobedience” is interesting too, of course, because it’s his most “town” writing, in a way. We don’t think of Thoreau as an urban writer, but the core of that essay is the time when he spends one night in jail, and what he says is, “For the first time I overheard what all the cooks and dishwashers said in the town-inn kitchen. For the first time I overheard the people walking through town in the middle of the night,” and he essentially says, “I saw my town for the first time. I saw what the real institutions of my town are from the other side, from being the person locked up,” and he more-or-less says everybody could do with a night in jail just to see how things work from the inside and from the point of view the person who’s least regarded.

CL: I’m trying to think of people who were a majority of one. Martin Luther King was a majority of one. Nelson Mandela was a majority of one.

MG: Yeah. Well, it’s funny because Thoreau, of course, he likes to set the great up and then tear them down, but in one of his kind of orations, one of these grand flights in “Civil Disobedience,” he says, “You know what the problem with governments is? The problem is that they take Christ and they crucify him, and they take Washington and Franklin and call them rebels,” and he more or less says at one point that the people who are the truest civil servants are, inevitably, the ones whom the state first of all decides are their enemies. They’re the people who’ve stepped out of line.

It is an essay that deliberately has these qualities of a puzzle, a mind bender, a set of the Zen koans or something but one that really survives and is useful today. I sometimes think What Would Thoreau Do: WWTD in these times because he presents you with these immediate puzzles about things we get used to, right? The laws are there. They represent us all, etc. He says, “Well, does it really represent you? What would it take to ask if this represented you?” And then, in a situation like now with Trump where so many people are prepared to say “Not my president. I didn’t vote for him. He represents everything I’m against,” well, that’s all fine, but what will you do with it? Do you go out to stand somewhere to remind people? Do you go home to say, “I’m not going to spend my time embroiled in a kind of folly”? And he doesn’t give you a straight answer, or he doesn’t give you a simple answer, let’s say.

CL: Muhammad Ali strikes me as an extraordinary case too: broke the law, was denied his greatest achievement, went into exile and came back triumphant and remained himself.

MG: Yeah, I mean, and in a sense was lucky to get to come back and have years of lionization, if that’s luck. I mean, I’m sure he himself was not always grateful to the sort of people who in the past had attacked him who now were friendly, but certainly, there is this history of the great American figures, especially black figures who are, because they speak out, speak the truth, pushed away: W.E.B. Dubois and Paul Robeson losing his passport and so forth.

At the same time, I worry for myself. I’m not a particularly heroic or courageous person—although often indignant or outraged—and for the rest of us, the not-quite heroes, to think about what it would mean to withdraw a cent to things that you don’t believe in. It’s a tough task, one that I guess is back on the agenda now.

CL: Thoreau in a way was against everything, except arrowheads and fishes and the woods, but he left a mark!

MG: He was! I mean, it’s the thing I admire endlessly about Thoreau and about many others of our kind of heroic pantheon, and it’s the thing that made this idea of being against everything make sense to me, both as a kid growing up near Walden Pond and visiting it to go swimming and wondering who was this guy of whom everybody admires and buys bumper stickers of now and mugs that say “simplify simplify” from the Concord shop, and yet, in his own time so clearly seems to have been such a crank.

I mean, I guess the principle of Against Everything, ordinarily, is simply that it’s reasonable and right about the things that people say are good and just and true to ask if they really are, to ask if you really believe in the things that everyone seems to believe in and to say “no” first and push first as a way, I guess, of finding out the things that you really do love, the things that you really do stand for and believe in. That’s the Thoreau-ian principle as I take it.

CL: And he’s 200 years old this year so the moral is: Read Thoreau, and feel free to be a crank in the age of Trump.

MG: Be a crank, indeed. You know, Trump in a way he suddenly presents us with the spectacle of a million things that one really is against, one should be against, almost too easily, a mockery of what it is to separate right from wrong or good from bad, and because of that I do think there’s an additional challenge of not letting the Trump moment engross all of your attention nor to assume that the rest of your life is all good and right.

CL: Right after the election Mark, you wrote that we don’t have a president. “No President” was the motto. Sounds like Thoreau’s motto of “better than small government would be no government,” but where do you go with that slogan?

MG: I was trying to think what was good in a moment of really realizing the worst, having the worst-fear president, and I was trying to think too why I felt uneasy with the slogan that you heard from people: “not my president.” It always worries me a bit when you think you can simply opt out of responsibility for a state that relies on the collective consent of the governed.

I think with his vision of “no president” is something other than a slogan. What I imagine, really, is that it might well be time, in a country that vowed it would not have kings or queens and would not have single leaders, to find a way out of always thinking of ourselves endlessly fantasizing in relation to single individuals. Presidents or possible presidents. During the election I did find myself thinking this was crazy to spend so much time thinking “Am I more like Hillary? Am I more like Donald? Do I like Hillary? Do I like Donald?” Who cares? Why even use these single names for single people as kind of exemplars of who we might be as a nation?

So yeah, I thought maybe it’s time to grow up, get rid of an executive that was never meant to be very powerful in the first place, force ourselves actually to look at Congress and make them do things and think, as probably the founders wished us to, in kind of collectives of two houses of Congress, of representation from all of us, etc. Not just as a thought experiment, I do feel kind of in earnest. It actually might be good to think about what the United States would be like if we could get rid of presidents altogether, and certainly, Trump presents a real case of it because I do think his election is illegitimate in many ways, and as a political personality he seems illegitimate to be a leader precisely because of his life and lies and all the rest.

I think there’s something there too about Thoreau of use now, and something very unfamiliar to us now about Thoreau is that he really did think of himself, rightly, as being very close to the founding, right? So, it’s let’s say 75 years earlier when he’s writing his major works, and there he was in Concord and Lexington, and he thought, “Oh, these people who started a new country and founded the nation, well, that’s my grandparents’ generation.” But, for that reason, he had this odd idea that every person or every American might think of him or herself as, again, being a kind of founding generation.

You might have to ask yourself, “Well, we gained our independence, we said. Did we actually gain independence?” It’s in line with his great joke about writing his book for those who are said to live in Concord. The joke, of course, is that he doesn’t mean that there’s any doubt about where they’re located but that there’s some doubt, by his standards, of whether they’re really living, and Thoreau would put to us the question all these hundreds of years later: Have we really achieved independence in the way that we promised ourselves with this government, and if not, what would it take?

What is a Philosopher?

Derik Parfit, British philosopher


He was born in Chengdu, western China, where his parents, Jessie (nee Browne) and Norman Parfit practised preventive medicine in Christian missionary hospitals. The family moved to Oxford a year after Derek’s birth.

At the age of seven, he wanted to be a monk, and prayed fervently that his parents, who had by then lost their faith, should return to it. However, perturbed by the problem of evil, he lost his own faith at the age of eight, and turned to poetry-writing.

Derik Parfit was to become a celebrated British philosopher. He hated to waste time and ordered identical meals and owned identical outfits.

He reframed the agenda in moral philosophy, helped to replace the ideal of equality with the principle of prioritising the worst-off, and established a new philosophical discipline, population ethics.

He wrote only two books, Reasons and Persons (1984) and the hefty On What Matters (2011, but their originality, brilliance and provocativeness not only inspired philosophers all over the world, but also influenced discussion of practical and political strategies in tackling poverty, inequality, welfare economics, ageing and global warming.

[Bits and pieces from an obituary in The Guardian, 12 Jan. 2017.]

Not exactly a Thoreau type, but . . .

The Numbing Menace of News

When Thoreau discovered a rumpled newspaper on the crest of Mt. Graylock, the discarded wrapping for a hiker’s lunch, he found the ads more interesting than the news. Thomas Merton, the marvelous monk who started rapprochement with Buddhist monks in the ’60s, didn’t read daily news. He waited until it became distilled into magazine articles – as if it needed to be cured. No one’s figured out how to cure on-line “news.”

Ok, I watch it, or better, catch it unfold digitally.  It’s frighteningly numbing because it’s scandal after scandal, obscenity after obscenity, golden showers all over. Why should I watch a pissing contest, where it isn’t really a contest because one guy gets to piss on the otherwise well-dressed?

The news, at least recently, numbs: it’s a visceral attack on intelligence and decorum. It menaces because it places us in the space of retort and retaliation rather than even-tempered humane assessment.

At present I think we need time and space to collect ourselves for a new mode of responsiveness, without rancor and without pedigree: there are no historical precedents.

Detached political analysis and counterargument have become utterly out of place. Without a retreat from the daily barrage we have no hope to find words that in the long run we can stand by as worthy – not just wise cracks reversing the flow of invective.


There’s another reason to avoid the numbing menace of news. By nature, news gravitates to the sensational and broadly political at the expense of the everyday, communal, and personal.

I’ve been following the corruptions of the Israeli head of state (see, I DO read the stuff!). When he feels weakened, he’ll start a war or threaten one. This rallies the citizenry around the flag and capitalizes on fear for the safety of sons and daughters in uniform and at risk.

Public demonstrations or lobbying for social change are suspended. The occupy movement started in Tel Aviv, not on Wall Street, and was shut down by a manufactured “military emergency” called the Gaza war. More recently, the head of state disrupts and scatters desert Bedouin tribes-men and -women to distract the public from the financial corruptions that will bring him down.


The gentle and humane, the everyday and communal, are not newsworthy.

It’s not newsworthy that Israeli women, in acts they construe as Thoreauvian civil disobedience, quietly bring Arab mothers and their kids to the beach, sneaking them illegally through military check points.

Nor is it newsworthy that a graduate class of Arab and Jewish women will amicably discuss the hijab, its meaning, and the meaning of being an Arab woman with an education: does it make her unmarriable?

Daily news has a taste for the apocalyptic and outrageous. It overlooks the everyday decency of folks who are not deemed headline-worthy.

As a result we reduce a country or region we know little about to the impression left by headlines — by horrific violence or ugly corruption.

Sometimes it’s good to read that Vlad is richer than Bill Gates or the Donald. We can shake our heads at that denouement to the socialist dream. And perhaps we can understand the mutual attraction between Vlad and the Donald. They have the same goals: wealth and power and the public be damned.

Trump admires Putin because Putin is richer and has more power and is more willing to kill. Vlad no doubt admires American ostentation because it’s more colorful than drab Russian displays of wealth. So, you see, I read the menacing news.

But to tell the truth I wish I knew much more about daily life in St Petersburg and in Haifa, in Chicago and in Washington, in Venezuela and in Cape Town. Without these rewards, the world becomes scandal- and outrage-only: a numbing menace indeed.

Music as Catch and Release


The Inward Morning is a great Thoreauvian piece of writing. It was written by Henry Bugbee in the interim between leaving Harvard as an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and joining the philosophy faculty at the University of Montana. Two of his great loves were fly-fishing and music. I quote here his thoughts on music, penned in 1963, leading him to depths uncharted. They’re from his essay, “On Starting with Love,” soon to be made available in a collection of his (mostly) unpublished works from Fordham, edited by David Rodick.

A better, if more awkward, title to these reflective passages would be, “music as my being caught and released,” or even more awkwardly, “music as a call, immersion, and release into silence.”

He sees music as a great teacher in his life, and great classical composers, tutoring him.

I began to distinguish [using music as a distraction] from the vein in which goodness may flow with undiminished freshness, as in works of Mozart themselves. Indeed those very works spoke to me with incomparable lucidity of a lightness of heart that can offer no affront to the miseries of life, since it is not contrary thereto, but gentle to lift them up with respect and with care, and to bind over all moments of life into a preserving and persevering way which is true to them, that flows and dances, is tractable and disciplined, quick to bind and release

Right alert, alive, centered in the silence in which it may be heard, there, whence it comes and into which it returns, there is the silence that reigns, the measure of unknowing, there music carried me, to leave me, listening still.

[It] prepared me for leave-taking. Yet every great work in some measure really heard tended to culminate beyond itself in that palpable silence into which it would carry, searching one’s readiness to follow.

Thus it is as if through binding me by their music my tutors had wanted to hold me toward eventual release. And so they schooled and schooled me in the mode of listening attention which they wished me to bring even to the events and relationships of every day.

Defeating Anger’s Takeover

Thoreau found the presence of slavery in Massachusetts depleting his spirit. He could hardly enjoy his woodland walks. He wrote marvelously eloquent essays that display his focused indignation. But anger can be destructive, as he knew.

I’ve found the news cycle’s focus on the petulant and dangerous president-to-be spiritually debilitating.  But what is to be done?

It’s hard to take one’s eyes off a melee happening in the street in front of the house. When brawls break out we can hardly not watch, but we also want to flee. Or perhaps join in, on one side or the other. Or try to break it up. I suspect many of us undergo ever-recycling, energy-depleting flight-fight responses to Trump’s non-stop sensational and gleefully reported fist-fights and brawls.  Like all tough guys craving attention, he loves a fight, and picks them daily. But brawling back is a dead end.

In a personal vein, I asked myself what could break the ugly spell of these brawls. Then I came upon some good news, and knew I had found an answer: find and retain focus on good news. Stuff like this:

  • Ministers and lay citizens are vowing to register as Muslims if a registry is put in place: I find that news calming.
  • My neighbor knows many women through her knitting groups;every one of them is going either to the woman’s march in Washington, or to a local march protesting the inauguration.
  • Women over 60 are knitting pink “pussy caps” in defiance of “pussy-grabber.”
  • Churches are researching how to respond to policies (economic, health-care-related, educational, and anti-immigrant) at the local level by 1) knowing in advance what impacts various Washington-based policies will have locally; 2) mapping out ways to resist or evade changes that have negative impact.
  • There will be a dearth of ‘performers’ for the inauguration: those refusing to perform should be lauded – and we should laud Merrill Streep and others who graciously resist.
  • Proliferation of Xmas-light hearts and small heart posters are all over my  part of Portland — a gentle but strong way to say love trumps hate.
  • Elizabeth Warren: “The people of Massachusetts didn’t send me to Washington to roll over and play dead while Donald Trump and his team of billionaires, bigots, and Wall Street bankers crush the working people of our Commonwealth and this country:. This is no time to quit.”
  •  Republicans –some — are standing apart from Trump’s ill-informed, petulant bellicosity, on one issue or another. Remember their resistance.

Such good news can break the dead-end cycles of impotent anger.