‘When you head into the country, it’s best to take your Thoreau along with you…’

When you head into the country, it’s best to take your Thoreau along with you. Marilynne Robinson calls the West “lonesome” and means it to be a virtue. I want so much for life to be quiet and wind-spoken. Thinking sounds–comes and sounds–like this. Like wind speaking. We’ll be in the mountains for almost a week, secluded, hiking, and meditating, thinking of squash, of all that’s temporary, and of lonesome things too.

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‘[F]or a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone…’

At a certain season of our life we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house. I have thus surveyed the country on every side within a dozen miles of where I live. In imagination I have bought all the farms in succession, for all were to be bought, and I knew the price. I walked over each farmer’s premises, tasted his wild apples, discoursed on husbandry with him, took his farm at his price, at any price, mortgaging it to him in my mind; even put a higher price on it,–took everything but a deed of it,–took his word for his deed, for I dearly love to talk,–cultivated it, and him too to some extent, I trust, and withdrew when I had enjoyed it long enough, leaving him to carry it on. This experience entitled me to be regarded as a sort of real-estate broker by my friends. Wherever I sat, there I might live, and the landscape radiated from me accordingly. What is a house but a sedes, a seat?–better if a country seat.

I discovered many a site for a house not likely to be soon improved, which some might have thought too far from the village, but to my eyes the village was too far from it. Well, there I might live, I said; and there I did live, for an hour, a summer and a winter life; saw how I could let the years run off, buffet the winter through, and see the spring come in. The future inhabitants of this region, wherever they may place their houses, may be sure that they have been anticipated.

An afternoon sufficed to lay out the land into orchard woodlot and pasture, and to decide what fine oaks or pines should be left to stand before the door, and whence each blasted tree could be seen to the best advantage; and then I let it lie, fallow perchance, for a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.

–Excerpt from Henry David Thoreau, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” Walden

On ‘urban supremicism’ and the end of opportunity cost

I have been following Greek citizens’ response to the collapse of their economy and their likely exit from the Eurozone. Some, doing the hard work of their forbears, have returned to the land. Others, like Gregoris Skouros (see “As Economics of Everyday Life Erode, Some Greeks See Little Hope” [New York Times, Sept. 19, 2012]), have tried to start an escargot farm with a view to exporting snails to wealthy buyers in France and Italy. The idea that the modern city may not be the place in which one leads a good life is now coming into view.

Last month, my friend Dougald Hine spoke at Future Perfect, a once-yearly festival concerned with sustainable living, about what he calls “urban-supremicism.” On my construal, his urban-supremicism view consists of two claims. One is that migration from the country to the city, during the onset of industrial capitalism and since, was not an inevitability; in many cases, migration came as the result of coercion and exploitation, not because of individual choice. The second is that life in the modern city is not, all things considered, intrinsically better than life in the country. If the migration was not inevitable, then it can be reversed; if life in the city is not in all respects desirable, then it can be brought into question.

I skimmed a story in Bloomberg about Task Rabbit, a service that allows users to outsource individual tasks–the simplest errands, the greatest drudgeries–to the lowest bidder. You might pay me $20 to clean your house on the fly. I noted in yesterday’s New York Times that beauty salons and mobile-manicure providers are now “on the go.” According to one beauty salon owner, “Urban women are so busy with jobs, family and life, and it becomes harder to find a couple of hours to carve out to go and see your stylist on a day and time that works for both the client and the stylist.” Apparently, irony is no longer in vogue.

Dougald invites us to consider the qualitative difference between cooking food for loved ones and making food at a restaurant; between giving a handmade gift and buying one online; between massaging a lover’s back and paying for one; between growing one’s food and running a credit card at a supermarket. Here on the Upper East Side, nannies walk children to Central Park, dog walkers walk dogs around the block while professionals spend their days in Midtown, Fresh Direct delivers groceries to owners’ doorsteps, personal assistants arrange family schedules, and tutors see to children’s homework.

We have to ask what it feels like to engage wholeheartedly in one kind of activity in comparison with another where this ‘another’ is of an entirely different order. What does it feel like to live according to nature, and what does it feel like to fight your way through a massive, standardized, bulk-sized CostCo? Perhaps, in what promises to be a post-growth world opportunity cost will no longer have the final say in the matter.

On the very idea of philosophy as a way of life

I have been corresponding with Michael McGhee via email. McGhee, an Honorary Research Fellow in philosophy at the University of Liverpool, said that the MA program in Philosophy as a Way of Life at the University of Liverpool folded a few years ago, not long after it began and around the time that he retired. Perhaps the modern research university, the kind dreamt up by Humboldt and copied by Johns Hopkins, the kind that would become the model for education in the twentieth century, is not the institution in which a pupil can learn how to lead a philosophical life.

Yesterday, I was speaking with Robert Kugelmann, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Dallas, about the fine book he had written on–and against–stress. I confessed that I had not read it through. He told me that his one line conclusion for the use of the word was to “stop using it!”

At the moment, Kugelmann is teaching an undergraduate course in the history of psychology. The students are reading the ancient philosopher and medical doctor Galen’s book, The Cures of the Soul’s Passions. Galen argues that the end of philosophy is to become a wise men. “And are they learning to become wise?” I asked him. “Good question,” he said. “I hope they are becoming more open about these questions.” One of the limitations of the field of psychology, he said, is that it fancies itself a science.

Over the past couple years and after countless conversations with a wide variety of intellectuals and laypersons, I have yet to disconfirm my theses (on the idea of testing a thesis in this fashion, I’m thinking of Karl Popper on falsifiability) that, first of all, philosophy as it is taught in school is grasped as a theoretical discourse chiefly (words about words, theories about something or other, etc.), not as a commitment to living philosophically and, second, that philosophy as a way of life cannot be taught in the educational institutions we have inherited. (Both mistakes have been carried over into ‘popularizing’ philosophical organizations like The School of Life and Idler’s Academy and, more dogmatically still, into the School of Practical Philosophy.) Philosophy, I have written sometimes, is analogous to rational chanting. Or: philosophy is like praying by other means.

McGhee pushed back somewhat, arguing:

I think the notion of philosophy as a way of life leaves room for a theoretical expression of what constitutes such a life, but it is certainly true that you don’t need to be an intellectual to be a member of a philosophical community in the sense we both embrace, I think.

I replied,

I agree with you that a philosophical life must make room for theoretical reflection on the nature of such a life, on how it hangs together. But–well–I think there’s theory and then there’s theory. (What is this–Groucho Marx?) Reflection on such a life within the confines of the practice of philosophy is good and, provided it comes at the right time, entirely needful. By contrast, professional meta-ethics, say, once and already severed from a basic commitment to leading a philosophical life with one’s fellows, seems to me woefully misguided. I remember attending conferences and writing words like “bloodless” and “wooden” in the margins of my notebook.

On civility and peak oil

In his book on the American South, the writer Jeremiah Sullivan recalls sitting in a rental car that is in a long line of cars idly queueing up for gas. They are backed up onto the highway, near New Orleans; it is not long after Katrina. Most gas stations are not working properly and this one, if memory serves, is also low on fuel. People are stir crazy, angsty, short-fused, want to get out. And if there were no more oil? And if, after the supplies of oil soon to be available in the warming Arctic were to dry up, where would we be?

Stepping onto the subway as workers head home from work is an intimation of Hobbes’ war of all against all. Behind me, a woman, two women wedge and slide their way into the jammed subway before I do. Like others, they jockey for handrails, grabbing the best remaining spots on the standing pole. Some apologies, mainly sadnesses. Civility in the city is thin in these instances. How thin will it become?