Three Books With Andrew Taggart

Davood Gozli and I discuss three books that have been near and dear to my heart: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Pierre Hadot’s The Present Alone Is Our Happiness, and Lao Tse’s The Tao Te Ching. All three books have been formative at the just the right moments in my life. Austen’s books taught me the importance of moral and intellectual education in the deepest sense of that term. Hadot showed me that philosophy was, rightly understood, a loving pursuit of living wisely. And Lao Tse (or Laozi) showed me that sacred texts slowly sink into us: if we allow them to, they shall slowly transform our sensibilities, our way of being in the world.

This is as much a conversation about transformation (the substance, as it were, of the conversation) as it is one about presence (the vibrancy of what’s occurring in the conversation itself, right and now).

And if that isn’t enough to get you to listen, then, well, Davood is kind enough to call me a “real philosopher.” Now you have to be curious!

Our Kairotic Zeitgeist: An Opening For Contemplation

There are now approximately 5 billion people ordered or strongly urged to stay at home. At this very moment, we could be experiencing an extraordinary collective existential opening.

It must be clear to you that, at least in the United States, our healthcare system is fragile; that our food system (given intricate supply chains and green revolution innovations) are fragile; that our system of employment is fragile; and our nuclear families, as David Brooks recently pointed out, are likewise fragile. Welcome to our meta-crisis.

Now, the Greek term kairos refers to a kind of time that is “opportune” or “timely” or “propitious.” To be sure, we must act swiftly as well as wisely.

Yet, just now as 5 billion people are sheltering in place, might the kairotic zeitgeist be urging us, almost pleading with us to re-embrace contemplation? When we contemplate, we ask introspective questions that had been, perhaps for centuries, long forgotten. We also, right now, realize how many things we had taken for granted.

Since I’ve been writing, at least for three years now, about work, let me turn to that subject here. Consider closely what Bertrand Russell once said, “One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” You can now see, if you’re being honest with yourself, that we’ve embraced a culture that presumed that work was “terribly important.” It was not and it has never been. 

Once you’v started to–what a strange idiom this–‘work from home’ and also once you realize that the work you do is not terribly important, you can ask, “Well, then, what sorts of things are actually terribly important?” Don’t stop the inquiry at family or romantic love. Don’t go for sloppy thinking. Go much, much further.

Are You Doing Enough To Help?

Are you doing enough to help other sentient beings right now? Let that question hang about your heart for a bit.

The answer is probably not.

Is it possible for you to reach out to someone you only just know? If you do, can you do it in the spirit of caring?

To care, you need to imagine something about what it’s like for that person to live as she does. Does he have a history of sinus infections? If so, might he be worried about his immune symptom would hold up were he to have the COVID-19 virus?

Do her older parents live in New York City? What might it be like for her to have older parents living in the epicenter of the pandemic?

How large is the house his family is now occupying? How long might it be before he and his wife get on each other’s nerves after all these years during which he has been working outside the house?

Does she feel lonely? Might she? Would a call make a difference to her?

These are simple, straightforward instances of caring. Caring, you noticed, requires some oomph on your part. Better than writing to say, “I’m thinking of you,” is saying something you know to be true about the person about whom you’ve been thinking and to whom you’re now writing.

Don’t be afraid to imagine and, from there, to empathize. A new world may be birthed from the caring entanglements that emerge from the rubble of liberal-humanist-materialist civilization.

Therefore, ask yourself again, “Am I doing enough to help?”