Monthly Archives: March 2015

Roger Ebert: Life Itself

I recently watched Life Itself, the wonderful documentary about the Pulitzer prize-winning film critic and social commentator Roger Ebert (1942 – 2013). It has a rotten tomatoes score of 100% among top critics. The documentary is based on his best-selling book, Life Itself: A Memoir. (I have read large portions of the book.)

I give both of my thumbs up to the documentary, with a cautionary note that seeing Mr. Ebert’s physical condition at the end of his life can be difficult. As for his memoir, it is wonderfully well-written by a great prose stylist. Here are its opening sentences:

I lived at the center of the universe. The center was located at the corner of Washington and Maple streets in Urbana, Illinois, a two bedroom white stucco house with green awnings, evergreens and geraniums in the front, and a white picket fence enclosing the backyard.

Isn’t that the way it is for all of us? We are all born at the center of our universe, and nothing for the rest of our lives makes quite such an impression as our childhood.

I first became familiar with Ebert while watching “Sneak Previews,” his show with Gene Siskel. I really enjoyed listening to two knowledgeable movie critics discuss films. I must admit to finding my own tastes in movies slightly more aligned with Siskel’s, perhaps because he was a philosophy major. But if they both recommended a movie—gave it two thumbs up—I felt confident the movie was worth my time. For many years I only bought videos if they had two thumbs up. Siskel and Ebert saved me a lot of time that might have been spent watching bad movies.

I also enjoyed reading Ebert’s blog which became his passion after he lost his voice. His last blog entry, “A Leave of Presence” was published just two days before he died. It is a beautiful and moving entry. Tomorrow I will discuss Ebert’s last words about life and death.

Mencken’s Creed

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 H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) was an American journalist,essayist, magazine editor, satirist, critic of American life and culture, and scholar of American English.[1] Known as the “Sage of Baltimore“, he is regarded as one of the most influential American writers and prose stylists of the first half of the twentieth century.

Mencken is eminently quotable and you will find a number of his quotes on this blog. I like everything about his creed except his naive libertarianism regarding government. He seems unaware that the social contract demands the sacrifice of some liberty for the social order. Unfortunately, like so many young intellectuals, he was a secret anarchist who thought the laws of civil society applied only to others. So I vehemently disagree with his claim “that all government is evil.” I am surprised that such a smart man could hold such a senseless belief. Still I strongly concur with the rest of his creed. Here it is.

Mencken’s Creed

I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind—that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.

I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.

I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty…

I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.

I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech…

I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.

I believe in the reality of progress.

I – But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.

Summary of Kant’s Ethics (short version)

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(You can find a more detailed summary of Kant’s ethics here.)

Kant’s most basic presupposition regarding ethics was his belief in human freedom. While the natural world operates according to laws of cause and effect, the moral world operates according to self-imposed “laws of freedom.” Here is his basic argument for freedom:

1. Without freedom, morality is not possible.
2. Morality exists, thus
3. Freedom exists.

The first premise is true because determinism undermines morality. The second premise Kant took as self-evident, and the conclusion follows from the premises. Kant also believed that freedom came from rationality. Here is his argument:

1. Without reason, we would be slaves to our passions (lust, envy, avarice, etc.)
2. If we were slaves to our passions, we would not be free; thus
3. Without reason, we would not be free.

We now have the basis upon which to connect between reason and morality.

1. Without reason, there is no freedom
2. Without freedom, there is no morality, thus
3. Without reason, there is no morality.

Kant believed moral obligation derived from our free, rational nature. But how should we exercise our freedom? What should we choose to do?

Kant’s ethics is the study of our duty. Since we are free, rational beings we can choose between actions. unlike non-human animals who are guided by instinct. Moral actions are actions where reason leads rather than follows. Such actions must take into account other beings that act according to their own conception of the law. Put simply, to be moral we ought to conform our free will to the moral law; that is our duty.

Kant says that the only thing that is completely good is a good will—the desire to conform itself to the moral law. But what is the moral law? Kant assumes that there is a moral law, and he further assumes that there is some rational representation of the moral law that we can understand. And when he thinks about laws, one of the key characteristics of true laws of nature are that they are universal. So the moral law must be characterized by its universality. Just as an equation of the form a(b+c) = ab + ac is universally applicable and needs only to be filled in by numbers, the moral law must have an abstract formulation by which to test actions.

Kant had seized upon the idea of universalization as the key to the moral law. To universalize a principle of our action we ask, “what if everybody did this?” We should act according to a principle which we can universalize with consistency or without inconsistency. This is what he calls the categorical imperative. By testing the principle of our actions in this way, we determine if they are moral. If we can universalize our actions without any inconsistency, then they are moral; if we cannot do so, they are immoral. For example, there is no logical inconsistency in universalizing the maxim, whenever we need a car we will work hard to earn the money. However, there is something inconsistent about universalizing the maxim, whenever we need a car we will steal it. A world where everyone stole cars would be a world where there were cars to steal but no cars to steal—since they would all already be stolen! (This is the basic idea, this is actually quite complicated.)

Of course, we can act contrary to reason because we are free, just like we can say that 2 + 2 = 6 or we can say there are round squares. But we violate reason when we say these things just as, for example, bank robbers violate reason when they rob banks. Why?  A bank robber wills a world where:

  1. banks exists as the necessary prerequisite of the bank robbery intended and
  2. banks don’t exist as the obvious consequence of bank robberies.

Kant’s basic idea is something like this. If I say you can taste my wine, I should be able to taste yours. Moral actions are rational, immoral actions are irrational.

In short, we act ethically if we freely conform our will to the moral law which it understands as the categorical imperative. The imperative prescribes action that are rationally consistent. If we act in this way, we may not be happy, but we will be moral. We will have done our duty.

(You can find a more detailed summary of Kant’s ethics here.)

Will Durant on the Meaning of Life (A Second Look)

In his book On the Meaning of Life (1932) Will Durant argued that we cannot answer the question of the meaning of life in any absolute sense, for our minds are too small to comprehend things in their entirety. Still he believed we can say a few things about terrestrial meaning. Here are excerpts from a great thinker and wonderful prose stylist:

The meaning of life, then, must lie within itself … it must be sought in life’s own instinctive cravings and natural fulfillments. Why, for example, should we ask for an ulterior meaning to vitality and health? … If you are sick beyond cure I will grant you viaticum, and let you die … But if you are well—if you can stand on your legs and digest your food—forget your whining, and shout your gratitude to the sun.
The simplest meaning of life then is joy—the exhilaration of experience itself, of physical well-being; sheer satisfaction of muscle and sense, of palate and ear and eye. If the child is happier than the man it is because it has more body and less soul, and understands that nature comes before philosophy; it asks for no further meaning to its arms and legs than their abounding use … Even if life had no meaning except for its moments of beauty … that would be enough; this plodding thru the rain, or fighting the wind, or tramping the snow under sun, or watching the twilight turn into night, is reason a-plenty for loving life.[i]

We should be thankful for our loved ones:

Do not be so ungrateful about love … to the attachment of friends and mates who have gone hand in hand through much hell, some purgatory, and a little heaven, and have been soldered into unity by being burned together in the flame of life. I know such mates or comrades quarrel regularly, and get upon each other’s nerves; but there is ample recompense for that in the unconscious consciousness that someone is interested in you, depends upon you, exaggerates you, and is waiting to meet you at the station. Solitude is worse than war.[ii]

Love relates the individual to something more than itself, to a whole which gives it purpose.

I note that those who are cooperating parts of a whole do not despond; the despised “yokel” playing ball with his fellows in the lot is happier than these isolated thinkers, who stand aside from the game of life and degenerate through the separation … If we think of ourselves as part of a living … group, we shall find life a little fuller … For to give life a meaning one must have a purpose larger and more enduring than one’s self.
If … a thing has significance only through its relation as part to a larger whole, then, though we cannot give a metaphysical and universal meaning to all life in general, we can say of any life in the particular that its meaning lies in its relation to something larger than itself … ask the father of sons and daughters “What is the meaning of life?” and he will answer you very simply: “Feeding our family.”[iii]

Durant too finds meaning in love, connection, and activity. “The secret of significance and content is to have a task which consumes all one’s energies, and makes human life a little richer than before.[iv] Durant found the most happiness in his family and his work, in his home and his books. Although no one can be fully happy amidst poverty and suffering, one can be content and grateful finding the meaning in front of them. “Where, in the last resort, does my treasure lie?—in everything.”[v]


[i] Durant, On the meaning of life, 124-25.
[ii] Durant, On the meaning of life, 125-26.
[iii] Durant, On the meaning of life, 126-28.
[iv] Durant, On the meaning of life, 129.
[v] Durant, On the meaning of life, 130.

Reflections on a 30 Year College Teaching Career


Marie Curie as a professor

I vividly remember walking into my first college classroom almost 30 years ago. I was nervous and excited at the same time. Was I the professor or an impostor? What would I say for 50 minutes, 3 times a week, for 16 weeks? Well, I found out I could easily talk that long. It enjoyed having a captive audience forced to as least pretend to listen to me.

For thirty years I tried to combine enthusiasm with command of my subject. I did some lecturing, as it is hard to generate discussion without there being something in a student’s mind, but I didn’t see my students as empty receptacles. Instead I tried to pull from what was already inside them, employing a Socratic method. I didn’t learn from all of my nearly 10,000 students, but I did learn from many of them and that fills me with gratitude.

The most influential advice that informed my teaching came from the Martin Heidegger.

Teaching is even more difficult than learning. We know that; but we rarely think about it. And why is teaching more difficult than learning? Not because the teacher must have a larger store of information, and have it always ready. Teaching is more difficult than learning because what teaching calls for is this: to let learn. The real teacher, in fact, lets nothing else be learned than—learning … The teacher is far ahead of his apprentices in this alone, that he has still far more to learn than they—he has to learn to let them learn. The teacher must be capable of being more teachable than the apprentices. His conduct, therefore, often produces the impression that we properly learn nothing from him, if by “learning” we now suddenly understand merely the procurement of useful information.  The teacher is ahead of his apprentices in this alone, that he has still far more to learn that they—he has to learn to let them learn. The teacher must be capable of being more teachable than the apprentices. The teacher is far less assured of his ground that those who learn are of theirs. If the relation between the teacher and the taught is genuine, therefore, there is never a place in it for the authority of the know-it-all or the authoritative sway of the official. It is still an exalted matter, then, to become a teacher—which is something else entirely than becoming a famous professor.

Still your students forget you, as one of my first mentors told me long ago. Thus you should focus on your own work; work that expresses or elaborates your being, work that is not alienated labor. So with many thanks to those thousands of students, now is the time to do less teaching and more learning. I so need and want to learn more.