Monthly Archives: March 2018

Best Books on History

Herodotus (c. 484 BC – c. 425 BC), often considered the “father of history.”

This is a list of some good books on history that I have read and recommend. For more information click on one of the links below.

• Will & Ariel Durant ~ The Lessons of History
• Will & Ariel Durant ~ The Story of Civilization (11 Volume Set) * (I have read parts of all these volumes but not the entire collection.)
• Will & Ariel Durant ~ The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time
• Yuval Noah Harari ~ Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
• Yuval Noah Harari ~ Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
• Arnold Toynbee ~ A Study of History, (Complete 2 Volume Set)

Review of Setiya’s “Midlife: A Philosophical Guide”

Kieren Setiya is a professor of philosophy at MIT. I just finished his Midlife: A Philosophical Guide. Here is a brief review.

As we approach midlife, even the successful among us wonder what we have missed and if our achievements are enough. Setiya begins with some general advice. He reminds us that missing out on things is part of life and that lost opportunities probably look better in retrospect. We can reconcile ourselves with the past by remembering that previous mistakes played a role in our subsequent achievements. Moreover, if we could change the past we might find the present would be worse. What we have now is likely better than what we conjure up in our imagination.

Setiya’s reflections on death are particularly thoughtful. He takes no comfort from Epicurus’ argument against fearing death. Instead, he accepts the deprivationist claim that death is bad because being dead deprives us of the good things of life. 

Now some people gainsay such worries, arguing that we should care no more about not existing after death than we now do about not existing before death. But, as he points out, those situations aren’t symmetrical. While most of us want to live indefinitely into the future, almost no one wants their lives extended indefinitely into the past. We prefer a day of suffering in the past to an hour of suffering in the future; we prefer an hour of pleasure in the future to a day of pleasure in the past. Death is no mirror of prenatal nonexistence.

Others claim that death is really good for us because immortality would be boring, hopeless, or meaningless. But for Setiya, people who say such things either really want to die or deceive themselves. He thinks it’s the latter—they adapt their preferences to what seems inescapable.  

Setiya notes that the desire for immortality isn’t always selfish—we want others not die too. We see that they have a value that we don’t want to be lost. Think about how you don’t want your children to die even long after you’re gone. We can also apply this same logic to ourselves. We are valuable and hope that our lives aren’t extinguished either.

Philosophy can’t completely comfort us regarding death, but it helps us to see immortality as an unattainable superpower. (He doesn’t address or isn’t aware of various scientific ways we might defeat death.) Armed with this insight, we can still want the best for ourselves and others but reconciles ourselves to letting go. In short, we can accept mortality without denying life’s value.

(I don’t find Setiya’s conclusion satisfying. The fact is that happy, healthy people almost never want to die and are despondent upon receiving a death sentence. People cry at funerals of their loved ones, accepting death only because they think it’s inevitable. I doubt they would be so accepting if they thought it avoidable. Consider that, after all the books and knowledge, memories and dreams, cares and concerns, faces and voices, then suddenly … nothing. Is that really desirable? No. Death should be optional.) 

I do find Setiya’s response to Schopenhauer’s mistrust of desires convincing. Schopenhauer argued that if you don’ have desires you’re bored but if you have them you’re miserable because you can’t ultimately satisfy them. For Setiya this implies that when we complete a project or reach a goal we have expelled that which gave meaning to our lives. Yes, we can find more projects but if we approach goals this way we are always trying to rid ourselves of what is good about the process of completing them. This insight leads to the salient theme of Setiya’s book.

The real challenge is coping, not with the past or future, but with the present. Rather than chasing happiness that lies in the future we should be content now. Here Setiya offers a strategy based on the distinction between telic and atelic activities. Telic actions aim at terminal states like finishing a book or building a statue, while atelic ones have no end but are valuable in themselves. When we complete the former we check them off our list and are done whereas the latter we do for their own sake. (Put another way, telic activities correspond to instrumental goods while atelic ones correspond to intrinsic goods.)

Setiya advises us to spend more time in atelic activities such as going for walks, conversing with friends, parenting, enjoying nature, or meditating. Even if you enjoy telic activities, try “to love their atelic counterparts, to find meaning in the process, not the project.” Otherwise, we are driven by projects that we don’t enjoy. In that case, completing our projects eliminates any meaning they had. However, if we enjoy the process of what we’re doing right now, then engaging in that process is itself rewarding.

Even if we want to eradicate suffering or otherwise improve the world such telic activities are given power by the atelic pleasure we derive from living in the present. We want the future to be better, but we should want the present to be better too. Thus we would be wise to adopt a more atelic orientation.

This is a simple but powerful insight. We shouldn’t always be chasing some happiness or contentment in the future, which will likely be followed by another chase. If we don’t find that inner peace now we aren’t likely to find it later. I thank Professor Setiya for his thoughtful book.

Best Books on Writing

Toshiba JW-10 stand-alone word processor, released 1978

These are the books on writing that I recommend. For more information click on one of the links below. (**Zinnser’s is the single best book on writing in my opinion.)

• Mortimer Adler ~ How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading …
• Harold Evans ~ Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters
• Steven Pinker ~ The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing …
• Strunk & White ~The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition
** William Zinsser ~ On Writing Well, The Classic Guide to Writing Non-Fiction **
• William Zinsser ~ Writing To Learn

Teacher Burnout

The teacher-student-monument in Rostock, Germany.

I can still remember the thrill of teaching my first college class over 30 years ago. I walked into the room wondering “What am I going to talk about for an hour, three times a week, for sixteen weeks?” As I soon found out, I could talk that long easily!

For the most part, I enjoyed teaching, but I’m glad to have put it behind me. For one thing, I can now concentrate on my scholarly thinking and writing, and for another, I was burned out of teaching toward the end of my career.

There were many contributing factors to my teacher burnout. First, many of the students in my introductory college courses didn’t want to be there—most of them took my philosophy classes to fulfill a requirement. So it was like teaching someone to play the piano or program a computer who doesn’t want to learn how, not an ideal situation. Looking back I wish that I could have gone into a class and said: “If you want to study and learn then we can do it together but if you don’t please leave.” No, I never said this but I admit I wanted to. Also, you meet a few nasty students when teaching.

Another factor is the inherent conflict surrounding grading. Most students care primarily about grades whereas I care about their learning. This led to occasional, dispiriting battles over grades. Moreover, the cumulative effect of teaching as many as 8 classes in a single semester slowly took its toll. This resulted from the fact that, in addition to a full load at my primary institution, I usually taught community college classes at night. In all, I estimate that I taught about 250 classes in my career covering 25 different subjects to a total of about 9,000 students.

A final factor had to do with the nature of philosophy itself. Philosophy is mostly about controversial topics like ethics, religion, and politics. Thus teaching it well forces such topics to be broached. As Spinoza put it: “I can’t teach philosophy without being a disturber of the peace.” That’s exactly right but the problem is that most students don’t want their peace disturbed. Add to this the current instability and hyper-partisan nature of American culture and the classroom is fertile ground for tension. I just tired of the conflict.

As for the students who wanted to learn, I enjoyed teaching and learning with them, and I remember many of them fondly. I say with all honesty that I did everything I could to contribute to their educations and would spend hours talking with them if that helped. Real education is something I believe in and I’d still teach today if I had interested students.

But now I feel about leaving teaching the way Thoreau did about leaving the woods.

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”

Good Books on Atheism and Agnosticism

Ludwig Feuerbach

These are some books on atheism and agnosticism that I recommend. For more information click on one of the links below. (** Books that had a special influence on me.)

• Alain De Botton ~ Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion
• Marshall Brain ~ How “God” Works: A Logical Inquiry on Faith
• Simon Critchley ~ The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments In Political Theology
• Richard Dawkins ~ The God Delusion
• Daniel Dennett ~ Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon **
• Ronald Dworkin ~ Religion without God **
• Greg Graffin ~ Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God
•  A. C. Grayling ~ The Good Book: A Humanist Bible
• Sam Harris ~ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
• Sam Harris ~ Letter to a Christian Nation
• S. C. Hitchcock ~ Disbelief 101: A Young Person’s Guide to Atheism
• Christopher Hitchens ~ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
• Julian Huxley ~ Religion Without Revelation
• Philip Kitcher ~ Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism
• Michel Onfray ~ Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam
• Bertrand Russell ~ Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects **
• Victor Stenger ~ God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion
• Mitchell Stevens ~ Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World 
• Phil Torres ~ A Crisis of Faith – Atheism, Emerging Technologies and the Future of Humanity
• Peter Watson ~ The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God