On waste and a life of simplicity

My parents taught me not to waste what was useful. When we accidentally left the lights on in the basement and my father found out, he marched upstairs, greeted us in our bedrooms, and told us to go to the basement to turn the lights off. We did, begrudgingly. Even though by local standards we were rather wealthy, my parents kept the same couches–brown, black, carpety and scratchy–for some 15 odd years. They thought, I gather, that anything that still worked had some value: the lawnmower with the cracked grill, the hideous orange- and cream-colored afghans, the plastic cups with the fading logos purchased years ago at college sporting events.

My parents were thrifty but rarely cheap. (Joan said her mother was frugal and it was from her that she inherited her own frugality. Joan and I laugh at the fact that we are not hoarders. We do not collect and save, and we do not think of “keeping this or that just in case.”)

My love of holding onto what is useful extends to the backpack given to me by a former lover 8 years ago; to the pillow I have had, if memory serves, since I was 5 years old; to the clementine orange umbrella, whose arms are becoming flimsy and weak, lent me 3 years ago and still in operation.

The everyday objects I adore the most are meant to last, not to be disposed of immediately. So you can imagine that I would be greatly vexed by the waste accumulating slowly in my treehouse. Recycling alone is a confusing taxonomic adventure in New York City, with certain plastics acceptable but not others and without a good standard applied to sorting. Likewise trash removal, for a whole host of reasons I beg off exploring below. This weekend in particular I was keenly irked by plastic bags into which I had put other plastic bags that were then put into other plastic bags. Recycled tote bags do not double as garbage bags.

I am moaning about waste yet I am groaning about city life, I see, and waste is only one sign of my overall simmering discontent. The composting I do seems insufficient. I am hungering instead for a simpler way of life in which death would be a part of life and returned to it. I am yearning for slowness and for no planes flying overhead in the evening as night falls.

A friend of mine related recently that the contemporary philosopher Arnold Davidson, the scholar perhaps most responsible for introducing Pierre Hadot to the US, does not own a computer and does not check his email. She says he says that he “gets paid to think seriously.” All right, I think, I praise the virtues exhibited in a life devoted to contemplation. Thinking contemplatively, talking while strolling, growing vegetables slowly, delighting in gardens: these features of a simple life are calling to me. My friend David E. Cooper retired to northern England, Michel de Montaigne to southern France.

How long I ultimately remain in New York City I do not know but leaving a life of bustle behind seems first an aspiration and second an inevitability. In my imaginative ramblings, my lover and I are riding our bikes along a country road toward our country home. She has a bunch of carrots lazing out of her front basket and I am speaking an adopted native tongue warmly into the wind.

I cannot remember the last book I read from cover to cover…

I cannot remember the last book I read from cover to cover. On the chest beside the bed, I see a small number of books with bookmarks jutting out from the middle. In the past month, I am not sure that I have read any books save some poems by Whitman and Lorca. Yesterday when I thought of writing something about my laxity with respect to reading, I looked halfheartedly for one of William Wordsworth’s poems on the priority of experience over books but could not find it. Google was no help, so I decided to begin the piece without the aid of Wordsworth.

I doubt I have the leisure anymore to spend a summer alone with Heidegger’s Being and Time or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. My philosophy practice takes up too much of my time to make, as it is said, embarking on an ambitious new project a worthwhile adventure. Besides, the summer is more over than begun, more fall than spring, cider than tulips. I doubt also what the purpose of the book is in contemporary culture, but this I have said before. Conceivably, too, I have lost interest in ‘the world,’ if this abstraction is understood to lie well beyond the ambit of my senses. In light of these doubts and doubtless others, I would much rather write love letters and have conversations and lucubrate and drink wine in a bathtub.

I need hardly remind myself that I am no longer a scholar; that I do not read for the purpose of passing the time; that an afternoon in nature may be more edifying than one spent in an uncomfortable armchair. Still, my apathy toward reading books, which also extends to articles, magazines, and newspapers, is novel and fresh even if it is neither painful nor unsettling. Novel and fresh but not beguiling.

I know better. Perhaps it is that I have discovered another way of living, one that fills my hunger for élan with silence, spare spoken words, and promenades. Must I ask for more or, for once, is summer just the season it is?

The transformation of the beautiful soul: A revised account

I think I want to modify my account somewhat of the transformation of an individual into a beautiful soul. A beautiful soul, we said, manifests beauty in his appreciation of beauty. How is it possible for one to become a beautiful soul?

To begin with, I want to say that the preparation for becoming a beautiful soul is a ‘humbling’ of one’s self-understanding. I thought I knew myself, one says, thought I understood my greatest cares and commitments, but now I realize I do not. My ‘arrogance’ was the arrogance of believing that I had a lucid grasp of myself yet now some event or set of events has–in the words of one conversation partner–‘unsettled’ me. I cannot ignore the event, and I cannot figure out what sense to make of it. My sense of humility is a recognition that I do not truly know myself and I dwell in the not-knowing.

This humbling opens the individual up to the possibility of re-evaluating his virtues and vices. Which brings me back to my second point about the shift in virtues I argued for yesterday, with one important revision. Through good practice with what Aristotle calls ‘friends of virtue,’ the incipient beautiful soul will undergo a transformation in her table of virtues–from the virtues of the market to those of nature. The condition, “through good practice with friends of virtue,” seems necessary because it seems impossible for one to become a beautiful soul on his own.

Third, the beautiful soul will come to see his virtues as needing to be harmonized with each other. So, an exercise of the salient virtues in his appreciation of beautiful things will also bring about a second-order harmony of the virtues so exercised.

The conclusion to humbling, the shift in virtues, and the harmony of the right virtues should be that the beautiful soul is, for the first time able to regard himself as belonging to a beautiful world. This to say that the world is beautiful, the beautiful soul is beautiful, and the beautiful soul dwells within the beautiful world. The beauty in his demeanor would indeed be, as my friend David E. Cooper says, “discernible to a sensitive observer.”

The transformation of the beautiful soul

The beautiful soul is a person who exhibits beauty in his general appreciation of beauty. I asked my friend, the philosopher David E. Cooper, the following question:

Is there an ‘education’ of the beautiful soul, a path one might follow in hopes of becoming one and, if so, what might this involve?

In our conversation, David proposes that the ‘un-selfing’ of the  individual is key to the process of transformation. He invites me to offer my own, much fuller account. Here I offer first thoughts that are getting worked up into a publishable form.

For now, I think I want to make two claims. First, I believe the beautiful soul comes into being only when he shifts his table of virtues from the ‘virtues of the market’ (to coin a phrase) to the ‘virtues of nature.’ I am drawing this conclusion from the claim of my lover and from the general observations I have made in my philosophy practice. My lover suggested that the virtues of discipline and commitment used to count highly in her table of virtues but they do no longer. Second, I want to show that a harmony of the virtues of nature must be the conclusion of this unfolding.

Especially with regard to the first claim, I am put in mind of Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, a work that accompanies the rise of commercial society. In the middle of his recounting, Franklin shares with the reader his scheme of self-improvement. He says that 13 virtues were most important to the prospect of his self-development. Two struck my eye immediately. He writes,

4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

Let’s say that resolution (equivalent, I believe, to my lover’s use of commitment) holds us to a task no matter the costs. Discipline, meanwhile, demands that we repeat these tasks indefinitely until we have achieved perfection. And industry ensures that we are always employed in tasks and hence have no time for leisurely contemplation, for idleness or reverie.

The person who exercises the ‘virtues of the market’ is bound to lead a disappointing, myopic life of bustle. He will be frustrated at various turns; he will stick to tasks and projects that do not work; he will always aim to ‘be productive.’ His life will be unsatisfying, strife-ridden, disharmonious, pointless.

Now, the beautiful soul has learned to let go of these virtues of the market. He is not resolved, disciplined (on this narrow construal), or ever industrious. Perhaps he sees in them an exemplification of futility? Perhaps he comes to regard them as hubristic, sternly so? Perhaps a nod to the conquering spirit? Whatever the reason, the beautiful soul has come to exercise the ‘virtues of nature’ instead: supreme among others, patience, courage, good judgment, and compassion. Like nature, the beautiful soul is patient, allowing events to unfold during the right season. He is courageous, persisting in his inquiry, going along with the Way. He exercises good judgment, knowing when to let be and when to press on. And, crucially, he shows compassion toward those who do not understand him or his life or the Way.

It would be necessary to show–and here I only gesture toward the second claim–that these virtues are harmonious with respect to the state of the beautiful soul’s soul and are in concord with the natural world. The conclusion would be that the beautiful soul just is a beautiful soul once he sees himself, as if for the first time, as being a part of the beautiful world.