Warmth and love and truth
December 25, 2012 § 1 Comment
Christmas, we might in 2012 say, is also a holy day and also a day of rest. And yet, falling this year on a Tuesday, it is also for me a day of posting, here on Montaigbakhtinian.com. Those who, rather than reading, would be stretched out on a couch or singing songs, opening presents, enjoying a dinner, . . . Well, you will do those things. As for me, on this day, or writing in preparation for this day, I would touch on two subjects which perhaps 2013 will provide opportunities to explore further.
One of these is the very Christian (and troubled) subject of love. I was impressed that President Obama, in speaking to the nation after the Newtown shooting, came to these words:
There’s only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love that we have for our children, for our families, for each other. The warmth of a small child’s embrace, that is true.
Among other things, as a species of philosopher I was impressed to hear a President speaking so philosophically. Of course in their speeches Presidents and their speechwriters routinely look for first principles on which to ground their proposed actions. Since our forefathers fought for liberty, we should send armies into this or that country to do more fighting for liberty. Or to quote again from one of my favorite speeches, Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” speech: “The purpose of protecting the life of our Nation and preserving the liberty of our citizens is to pursue the happiness of our people.” And, therefore, in the speech’s great, now heartbreaking lines, Johnson proposes that the Great Society
is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community. It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what is adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.
I have written about this before. But it seems to me that, as regards philosophy, Obama and his speechwriters went a step further, not only using philosophizing as a means to an end. For a space of about forty words amid almost two thousand, philosophy itself was the end. Obama was trying to help us, and presumably he himself as well, to find something certain, something true and beautiful, in a world that can seem—that largely is—beyond our control and at times of such harsh beauty. Descartes proposed “cogito, ergo sum” and Obama “The warmth of a small child’s embrace, that is true.” To paraphrase Keats, that may be all we know on Earth and all we need to know.
I am fortunate to have generous philosopher friends who also responded to Obama’s Newtown words and sent me some snippets from other philosophers. From Merleau-Ponty’s essay Lecture de Montaigne, a line about “regaining the grace of our first certainties in the doubt that rings them round.” From Gabriel Marcel (who criticized Descartes’s cogito as too self-centered):
[L]ove treated as the subordination of the self to a superior reality, a reality at my deepest level more truly me than I am myself—love as the breaking of the tension between self and other, appears to me to be what one might call the essential ontological datum.
Marcel’s words provide a segue to my second subject, which is the “other,” though I will often refer to it, oddly enough, under the heading “animal rights.” This December I happened to hear on the radio that the state of New Jersey was planning to shoot contraceptives into deer, ostensibly as a way of reducing the deer population in the state without killing any deer in the process. I soon discovered that this was in a sense an old story, and one that has been much discussed on the Web (e.g., by hunters, suburbanites and animal rights advocates). Authorities on Fire Island in Long Island Sound have been treating deer in this way for some years already and believe the program has been successful.
Stumbling upon the story this month I was reminded of two things I had read, one a long time ago and one quite recently. Long ago I read in Tzvetan Todorov’s La conquête d’amérique a story about residents of a Caribbean island in the sixteenth century, people who believed that after their deaths they would travel to a paradise where not only would life be easy but they would live again with all those who had died before them. The Spanish conquerors wanted these people to peaceably leave their homes and come labor in mines or on sugar plantations on Cuba and Hispaniola. So they told the people that the Spanish ships were going to take them to the promised land. When, arriving, the people realized that this new place was in fact a kind of hell, and their deceased relatives were not there, the dissonance was so great, many of the people committed suicide, either directly or more slowly, having lost the desire to feed themselves. They could not go on living in a world that was so different from their expectations. (Few of us could.)
Why did that particular story come to my mind when I heard of New Jersey’s plan to shoot contraceptives into deer? I found myself thinking of the does who—at least as I, personifying, imagined it—were going to continue having sex, being penetrated, but who were not going to become pregnant, were not going to produce any offspring. Some of these deer might find themselves parts of herds in which there simply were no more offspring. It could seem as if the species had come to an end. The world seems to be going on, but not us.
The bit I read quite recently is from David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (originally published in 1950):
Without the prevention of childbirth by means of postponement of marriage or other contraceptive measures, the [human] population must be limited by taking the life of living beings. And so societies have invented cannibalism, induced abortion, organized wars, made human sacrifice, and practiced infanticide (especially female) as means of avoiding periodic famine and epidemics. [Riesman’s emphasis.]
Some pages later he adds:
A whole way of life . . . is the basis of distinction between the societies in which human fertility is allowed to take its course and toll and those which prefer to pay other kinds of toll to cut down on fertility by calculation, and, conceivably, as Freud and other observers have suggested, by a decline in sexual energy itself.
There are some contradictions and other confusions in these sentences, but the point as regards New Jersey deer is clear. Their lone predator, at least in the suburban counties, is human beings, and so their alternatives are: to become so populous as to be vulnerable to famine and epidemics; to have their populations controlled by human hunters (or a venison industry?); or to cut back on procreative sex, possibly with the help of humans’ contraceptive darts. From this perspective the darts may be the best option, and indeed many humans have come to believe in using contraception themselves (or having females use it). It is presumably from this perspective that New Jersey state officials have decided to see how the darts work.
I have been surprised to find myself in middle-age as committed as I am to “animal rights.” It is not that I have ever been particularly opposed to the agenda of animal rights advocates, apart from the very large fact that I am not a vegetarian and do not expect to become one. Among other things, my sensibility is such that I do not feel that killing a stalk of wheat is somehow less bad for the wheat than killing a cow is for the cow. Presumably a major argument against my position is that cows, or crustaceans, feel pain not unlike we do (and stalks of wheat do not). And I would say then that it is also worth appreciating the validity of the “feelings” or experiences of species and things that do not seem so like us. One may read in the animal ethics literature about “anthropodenial,” the refusal to acknowledge that animals share many important mental capacities with humans, and inversely about how we have obligations towards animals on account of a “felt kinship.” But my interest is not only in the similarities, but also the differences. It is a great challenge to recognize that others (to include people with different skin colors or sex organs) are like us. It is a yet larger challenge to acknowledge the otherness of others (be they women, men, deer or rocks) and to respect them for their differences.
One way of putting my resistance to animal rights more generally would be to ask: Why this issue and not any number of other ones—starving children, abused children, prison rape, capital punishment, the power of capital to channel our responses so that they serve capital rather than human needs? My list could be much longer, and I imagine that readers could add many other items as well. Preventing shooting sprees, in schools in particular, is high on many Americans’ lists this month.
Which is all a bassakwards way of saying that something like or well beyond the animal rights agenda has come to seem central to me. That is, I have come to believe strongly that the members of all other species are “ends in themselves.” (This is from Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. Here from a translation by T.K. Abbott: “Man and generally any rational being exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will”.) At the risk of being laughed at, and not afraid of being laughed at, I will add that I even believe there is a way of thinking not only about seemingly a-rational beings, but also about inorganic matter—a way of thinking about rocks and water, for example—as in some sense ends in themselves.
And I would return to my earlier point: It is also worth appreciating the validity of the “feelings” or experiences of species and things that do not seem so like us. The New England preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards once asked his listeners to think of what “the sleeping rocks dream of.” He proposed that this will help us “get a complete idea of nothing,” and he also gave a sermon titled “Stupid as Stones,” but I would propose that this thinking of rocks’ dreams or possible stupidity are worthy thought experiments. The Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert wrote (in“Kamyk”: The Stone) that stones have “a scent that does not remind one of anything” and “stones cannot be tamed / to the end they will look at us / with a calm very clear eye.” He might well have been thinking of deer, the way they look at us. The American poet and aphorist James Richardson wrote, “All stones are broken stones.”
All this speaks to one of my interests in the other and in what I am rather approximately referring to as animal rights. Other beings do not exist to help us learn things or to think and feel more deeply, and yet their otherness is, as it were, on offer, and may even lead us to deeper understandings of ourselves as other. As a subscriber to the scientific journal Nature, I am weekly confronted by the sadistic practices of medical researchers (growing tumors in mice and so forth). I am aware that sadism has its pleasures; it is, inter alia, a way for dependent creatures (e.g., members of a highly social species) to revel in fantasies of autonomy, of not being in any way limited by the feelings or existence of anyone or anything else. But this can have little to do with knowledge, let alone wisdom.
I am blessed on this 25 December 2012 to be able to spend yet another day with my son Jonah. He is no longer a small child, and in the 12 years we have spent together, he has, among so many other things, certainly helped me appreciate that if there is a future for our science and for our species, it indeed has little to do with laboratory tests on other animals, or with shooting contraceptives into deer. My sense is that at least in this respect Obama and his speechwriters were pointing the country in a more promising direction. “The warmth of a small child’s embrace, that is true.”
The speech’s preceding sentence about the “one thing we can be sure of” spoke of our, adult love for our children and others, but I am more taken by this second claim, by which it is not that we adults might, using our rational capacities, come to love our children better, or to better protect them from the wild world in which we play our wild parts. Rather, the proposition is that small children—prior to “l’âge de raison” (the age of reason, traditionally age 7)—have this to offer us: warmth and love and truth.
Earlier comments on Johnson’s Great Society speech may be found in Where are our dreams?
More on what children have to offer us may be found in What shall I learn from parenting or parenting of me?
The image (the deer) is from the website of an organization called Wildlife Rehabilitation & Release which works “to save injured and orphaned wildlife from six counties of the California foothills and the valley below.”
The terms and phrases of animal ethics come from “Animal Ethics and Animal Minds (Reflections),” by Julie A. Smith and Robert W. Mitchell, chapter 21 of their anthology, Experiencing Animal Minds: An Anthology of Animal-Human Encounters (Columbia University Press, 2012).
T.K. Abbott‘s translation of Kant’s Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals has been available via the Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library: http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/KanFund.html.
Jonathan Edwards‘s texts do not seem easily available on-line. His comment on the dreams of sleeping rocks appears in the sermon “On Being.”
Texts of Lyndon Johnson‘s Great Society speech (Ann Arbor, Michigan, May 22, 1964) have been widely available, to include at an American Experience (PBS) site: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/lbj-michigan/.
The quotation from Gabriel Marcel is from Being and Having (Harper Torchbooks, 1965), p. 169. This is a translation of Marcel’s Être et avoir, a collection of pieces published by Aubier in 1935.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty‘s “Lecture de Montaigne” has been published as Chapter IX of Signes (1960). Scribd would seem to have the complete text of this book, in the French original: http://www.scribd.com/doc/91190927/merleau-ponty-signes.
A full transcript of President Obama’s speech at the December 16, 2012 prayer vigil for Newtown shooting victims has been available at http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-12-16/politics/35864241_1_prayer-vigil-first-responders-newtown.
Forty-seven of James Richarson‘s “aphorisms and ten-second essays” may be found at: http://www.poetrynet.org/month/archive/richardson/vectors.html.
David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, Revised edition: A Study of the Changing American Character (from Amazon).
For the usual fees, Tzvetan Todorov‘s work is readily available in English translation. Thus: The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other.