Philosophy and Alienation

Diogenes by Jean-Leon Gerome

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book X:

Happiness extends, then, just so far as contemplation does, and those to whom contemplation more fully belongs are more truly happy, not as a mere concomitant but in virtue of the contemplation; for this is in itself precious. Happiness, therefore, must be some form of contemplation.

In one of the earliest memories I still have access to I am probably 5 years old, fully awake during kindergarten nap time (I always was), eavesdropping on the teacher and aide as they discuss their plans for the next few days. “I think tomorrow we’re going to do some”—here the teacher pauses, scans the dark classroom, notices the open eyes on the mat next to them, and continues—“M-A-C-R-A-M-E…” With an excited gasp, I leap up, and in a loud, hoarse whisper declare, “Oh, I love macramé!”

I was a bright, curious kid. In my youngest years, this inspired me to do things like take apart household objects and put them back together to figure out how they worked. As I got older, however, it became a source of frustration and alienation. Always being steps ahead of every grade-school lesson made me an object of suspicion for most of my peers (“nerd” was not a term of endearment in the 90s); and my work ethic completely disintegrated after a few years of tedious school projects that sought to train principles I comprehended after only a few exercises. Of course, in all of this I was only the instance of a type: “the gifted kid,” that detestably predictable creature of the late 20th century, marked by a quick wit and a penchant for half-assing and smug self-assurance.

But unlike my peers in the gifted programs I was eventually recruited into, I grew up poor. My classmates dwelled in the suburban cul-de-sacs that curled labyrinthine about the edges of Orlando; I inhabited a double-wide in a swamp. The muddy lot our trailer was parked on had been a patch of palmetto and cypress trees, and the thousands of hand-sized wolf spiders displaced in the clearing took up residence with us, their webs blossoming between the wooden planks of our home’s cheap interior paneling. A family of enormous raccoons dug a burrow in the insulation under our floorboards, lured by the promise of two meals a day for the low price of having to fight off our five cats. (My mom’s airsoft rifle eventually raised the stakes.) Our tap water was full of sand on account of a poorly-dug well, which gave us a wonderful excuse for drinking nothing but Coca-cola. And though it never occurred to me to ask why I always visited my friends’ houses and not the other way round, I did regularly wonder why their homes were free of wild arachnids and mammals. (Eventually I decided it had something to do with the fact that they all had dogs.)

Nothing I learned in school mapped easily onto my home life. Our home was organized around television, not learning; our Sundays were spent contemplating NASCAR, not, say, the mystery of God in Christ. At school I endured my teachers’ dispassionate presentations of history and literature, and at home I drained cans of Coke to a daily succession of Batman cartoons and prime time sitcoms. But all the while I wondered—albeit in an indefinite, directionless way—about what might lay beyond the limits of my little world, populated by its spiders, raccoons, Final Fantasy, and sugary soft drinks. I puzzled over the things my family talked about, wondering what of what they referred to was real or not, what was or wasn’t important. I wondered, as all young people do at some point, whether life had a purpose. But unlike others my age, I failed to find an easy answer to this question, and my concern for it refused to be buried under the quotidian tasks of day-to-day teenage life.

So curiosity turned to agony as I grew into adolescence, and my dissatisfaction over my ability to adequately answer the riddles of the universe grew into a teenage melancholy that gripped me through the entirety of high school. I won’t bore you with the messy details. But though I was a promising student, I spent three years in a fugue state of resentment and self-imposed distraction, passing classes while paying barely attention and spending my free time pirating music on the internet and reading books. (All I recall of my entire high school curriculum is falling in love with—and eventually memorizing—T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, and collapsing into an existential coma in physics class after my teacher spent a day demonstrating the pointlessness of human life in the face of an overwhelming and indifferent cosmos.) After graduating in 2005, I briefly attended university on a full scholarship, but dropped out after my first semester because I had no idea what purpose college—and, by extension, institutional education at large—was supposed to serve. I spent a few years as an anarchist agitator and environmental activist, moved to a farm in southern Kentucky to retire from politics, and eventually went back to college in 2016 because I could do it for free and wanted to find people to talk to who read books and thought about things. Even there I was confronted by a world of people concerned mostly with the acquisition of prestige and profit, and spent the following four years mostly studying alone.

I found myself reflecting on my history after listening to this wonderful conversation between Jennifer Frey, professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, and Zena Hitz, a tutor at St. John’s College, the author of the wonderful new book “Lost in Thought: On the Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life,” and someone I consider a friend. Toward the beginning of their talk they discuss what led each of them to philosophy, and in both cases it was largely a matter of disposition colliding with opportunity: a shared melancholic madness, smug self-assurance, and propensity for questioning that separated them from their peers and made the normal things of life difficult was transmuted from a curse into a blessing by the alchemy of education. Before Zena finished high school she was admitted into St. John’s College by an audacious dean (God bless Eva Brann), while Jennifer followed the more traditional graduation-to-university route, landing at Indiana University in Bloomington. And both of their stories involve meetings with high school college counselors or sympathetic mentors who recognize the promise in these otherwise depressive young women and help show them paths that might be available.

Like them, my propensity toward inquisitiveness and contemplation has been a source of frustration and pain. Like them, when I finally found philosophy—genuine philosophy, after years trying to comprehend abstruse post-Frankfurt-School critical theory without the background to make sense of it—I took to it like a desert wanderer to an oasis. But unlike either of them, my acceptance of philosophy as a way of living never transformed into a source of worldly comfort, and the discomforting gap between thinking and living never closed. And this has been the case for so many people I’ve befriended over the years: the contemplative life hits them as a kind of sudden derangement, ripping them out of the fabric of life they were previous woven into and driving them into libraries and bookstores and open-to-the-public campus events in a desperate effort to whet their intellective appetites and (perhaps more importantly) to make connections with others who speak their same language. But more often than not, their eccentricity and roughness—from a lack of training in academic gentility—makes them alien to their fellows, and isolation persists. Many have struggled with—and far too often, succumbed to—drug and alcohol addiction; others, such as myself, continue to battle crippling anxiety and depression.

I don’t think any of this disproves Aristotle’s contention that happiness is a form of contemplation. Nor do I think that any scholar of philosophy worth their salt would disagree that a life dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom rarely reaps worldly goods. (The Athenians, of course, condemned Socrates.) But I think it’s important to be honest about how radically alienating such a life can really be for those who are already locked out of the kinds of aristocratic circles willing to receive individuals possessed by the madness of philosophy, who live in worlds where being an eccentric is greeted with far less understanding. The stakes are often immeasurably high: refusal or inability to abide by the merciless logic of economy—to suck it up, turn the mind off, and flip burgers—can mean isolation, institutionalization, homelessness. (How many homeless guys have I spoken with who spend their days reading magisterial history books in the library, or wandering the sidewalks in rags contemplating the form of the good like out-of-place desert fathers?)

Serious consideration of this asymmetry of conditions and stakes often leads concerned, charitable souls to push for an expansion of the university, to use some of its enormous capital reserves to bring in more members of the underclass. This response, I believe, flows from a lack of either imagination or courage: either we can’t conceive of what education might look like outside of the highly professionalized, radically compartmentalized research universities, or we can but lack the courage to make it happen. Ivan Illich, in his 1971 polemic Deschooling Society, argues for the “deinstitutionalization” of education such that learning and wondering can be suffused once more through the entire grain of human life, freed from its confinement within the time of the school-day and the gray walls of the classroom. (It’s a thrilling and weird book that could only have become popular within the optimistic social ecology of the 1970s; I highly recommend reading it.) I feel the urgency of such a view every day, and increasingly so as higher education becomes more endangered by the approaching double-edged crisis of finances and social trust. As we begin to imagine—and hopefully, to realize—alternatives, it is of the utmost importance that we take into consideration those lone thoughtful souls shining like beacons in the night, desperately trying—and failing—to find one another.

Thoughts on Class Conflict and Meritocracy

Chesterton, “Slum Novelists and the Slums,” in Heretics:

Next to a genuine republic, the most democratic thing in the world is a hereditary despotism. I mean a despotism in which there is absolutely no trace whatever of any nonsense about intellect or special fitness for the post. Rational despotism–that is, selective despotism–is always a curse to mankind, because with that you have the ordinary man misunderstood and misgoverned by some prig who has no brotherly respect for him at all. But irrational despotism is always democratic, because it is the ordinary man enthroned. The worst form of slavery is that which is called Caesarism, or the choice of some bold or brilliant man as despot because he is suitable. For that means that men choose a representative, not because he represents them, but because he does not. Men trust an ordinary man like George III or William IV. because they are themselves ordinary men and understand him. Men trust an ordinary man because they trust themselves. But men trust a great man because they do not trust themselves. And hence the worship of great men always appears in times of weakness and cowardice; we never hear of great men until the time when all other men are small.

The notion that all political belonging is predicated upon the conflict between classes comes to us originally not from Marx, but from Machiavelli. That order at the level of the whole—the city, state, empire, whatever—emerges from irresolvable conflict on the ground is one of the first lessons of modern political philosophy, and so too is the understanding of politics as a means for reconciling this conflict. The modern ruler is not the first principle from which the being of the political body flows, but rather a glorified judge. One can see how the liberal state follows quite neatly from this rewriting of the ontology of the body politic.

If you think liberalism is bad, you might decry this overturning of classical political ontology. Perhaps you wish for an ideal state ruled by a righteous monarch, to whom all subjects turn in awe and reverence as sunflowers to the dawn. But from a different perspective—such as that adopted by Hobbes and later, by Marx—even in such a scenario, the deference of the subjects is precisely what authorizes the ruler: the ruler has authority only inasmuch as that authority is recognized and legitimized by the ruled, whether through reverence or fear. In other words, a la Marx (Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right): “The state is an abstrac­tion. The people alone is what is concrete….Democracy is the truth of monarchy; monarchy is not the truth of democracy.”

This new vision of the state as a site of ongoing struggle makes it impossible for aristocrats and their fellow travelers to maintain their traditional detached antipathy toward the lower classes. In the modern state, classes are rivals—and being locked in a struggle means having to pay attention to the strategies and goals of your adversary. Machiavelli recognized with a keener eye than any other that this class conflict is productive: the tumult that arises from this permanent antagonism, when mediated by the legal and judicial institutions of the state, results in stability at the level of the state (Nassim Taleb, I believe, would call this “antifragility”) and a kind of harmony between classes as they negotiate (however noisily) their conflicting interests. Class conflict can never be overcome, but it can be managed well or poorly by a governor. The former promotes flourishing; the latter, decadence and decline.

If class conflict is necessary for political flourishing, then abrogating it might be a bad idea. This is precisely what is sought in “meritocracy.” Meritocracy is far more than a heuristic for leadership-selection: it is a story a community tells about itself, a strategy for political self-understanding. At its heart, it is the eternal aristocratic myth dressed up for a new, knowledge- and technique-obsessed civilization: it is a way of reading backwards the story of how the privileged achieved the good things they have, and why they are deserving of them. It is, in essence, a way of neutralizing class antagonism. A community that collectively repeats the story of meritocracy begins to believe that just as those at the top earned their place there, whether by wit or industry, so too are those at the bottom deserving of their place on account of their lack. Like Chesterton’s “rational despotism,” the myth of meritocracy holds that prestige and privilege follow from natural superiority—and since those who are not naturally superior could never perform at the same capacity as the meritocratic victors, there’s no use in contesting the position of one’s superiors. Victory would only end in disappointment and failure; struggle would be futile.

Classes that are not in conflict are castes. Meritocracy seeks the reestablishment of rigid formal hierarchies without the fear of dispossession by those at the bottom.

The Blessed and the Doomed

There are two kinds of people in this world: the blessed and the doomed. The blessed are those before whom hardships retreat like cowardly enemies, whose path through the world is lit by the light of goodness and is easy on the feet; the lot of the doomed, on the other hand, is always to suffer, to fail, to be excluded, to be crushed by hardship. The individuals within each kind are marked as such from birth: the doomed always know they are doomed, the blessed that they are blessed. The blessed may fall from their blessedness—spontaneously, undeliberately, by no fault of their own—and join the doomed, though this is uncommon. The doomed, however, are always doomed.

Most of the doomed learn to make decisions based on the knowledge of their doom. They do not dream, or hope, or strive for something beyond doom, or feel jealous of the blessed: they keep their eyes fixed on their feet, so to speak, and live one arduous day to the next while weathering the pain that comes with being one of the doomed. Virtue for the doomed means learning to suffer as painlessly as possible, to avoid thinking of a better, more blessed life, or of any end to their doom aside from their inevitable death. But some of the doomed—because they are either too stupid or too cowardly to face certain undeniable facts of their existence—spend their lives fruitlessly wishing to transcend the kind to which they belong, that of the doomed: they hope to become one of the blessed, to spend their days in the sunshine of goodness and to walk with the lightness and ease of those who live on the other side of the veil. These hopes become a source of immense sorrow for these poor dreamers of the doomed because they are implacable: the doomed are always doomed.

The blessed, on their part, are of two minds about the doomed. Some of them believe the best course of action is to be honest, to remind the doomed that they are doomed and that things will never be easy or good for them. Though some of them use this as an opportunity for cruelty, many of the blessed believe this honesty to be an act of mercy for the doomed, so that they will not forget that they are doomed and begin to dream of someday becoming blessed. Others of the blessed, however, believe it is unkind to remind the doomed that they are doomed, and think that however untrue it may be it is best to tell beautiful stories that give the doomed hope for a better life. Some of them even believe the blessed should convince the doomed that they are not in fact doomed, but are actually blessed, only they do not know it yet. All of them, however, know deep down that the doomed cannot ever become one of the blessed: the doomed are always doomed.

For the most part, the blessed and the doomed live out their lives parallel to, but largely separate from one another. The blessed who fall into doom may continue to live among the blessed, but the advent of their newfound doom will often make this difficult for them: they will watch with confusion while the rest of their former fellows walking with lightness and ease, and dream of someday returning to blessedness. This will not happen because they are doomed, and their wishing will cause them pain and sorrow. So too do the dreamers of the doomed occasionally enter into the halls of the blessed, lured by their beautiful stories about the possibility of entering into blessedness. However, no matter how long they spend among the blessed, their paths will never be lit by the light of goodness, and walking will never be easy on the feet. They will wonder why the world never seems to be quite like the beautiful stories they have heard from the blessed. And the blessed will continue to tell their tales, and the dreamers of the doomed will continue to believe them—but they will never become blessed, no matter how long they walk the halls and live the life and repeat the stories of the blessed. This is because they are doomed, and the doomed are always doomed.

Crisis and Opportunity

John Lukacs, At the End of an Age, 2002:

We have arrived at a stage of history when we must begin thinking about thinking itself. This is something as different from philosophy as it is from psychoanalysis. At the end of an age we must engage in a radical rethinking of “Progress,” of history, of “Science,” of the limitations of our knowledge, of our place in the universe.

Hannah Arendt, “What is Authority?”, 1954:

With the loss of tradition we have lost the thread which safely guided us through the vast realms of the past, but this thread was also the chain fettering each successive generation to a predetermined aspect of the past. It could be that only now will the past open up to us with unexpected freshness and tell us things no one has yet had ears to hear.

D. S. Carne-Ross, “The Center of Resistance,” 1979:

[T]he loss or radical fracture of tradition need not mean that the past has been lost. Rather, it has been dislocated. Where there was once an orderly territory there is now a kind of chaos. A fertile chaos, if we choose to make it so, for if whole regions have become almost inaccessible, others may lie invitingly open. With the collapse of so much that stood massively but obstructively in the foreground, we can now see beyond the ruins to the more distant past which paradoxically has come to seem closer to us.

Arendt again, immediately following the previous passage:

But it cannot be denied that without a securely anchored traditionand the loss of this security occurred several hundred years agothe whole dimension of the past has also been endangered. We are in danger of forgetting, and such an oblivion quite apart from the contents themselves that could be lostwould mean that, humanly speaking, we would deprive ourselves of one dimension, the dimension of depth in human existence. For memory and depth are the same, or rather, depth cannot be reached by man except through remembrance.

Guy Davenport, “The Symbol of the Archaic,” 1974:

All of this is part of what [Charles] Olson meant by saying that we are alienated from all that was most familiar. Basically he meant that we no longer milk the cow, or shoot the game for our dinner, or make our clothes or houses or anything at all. Secondly, he meant that we have drained our symbols of meaning. We hang religious pictures in museums, honoring a residual meaning in them, at least. We have divorced poetry from music, language from concrete particulars. We have abandoned the rites de passage to casual neglect where once we marked them with trial and ceremony. Thirdly, he meant that modernity is a kind of stupidity, as it has no critical tools for analyzing reality such as the ancient cultures kept bright and sharp.


Vision, memory, attention: these are other words for “world.” Crisis breaks the patterns of things, offering both the opportunity of a world and the danger of retreat. God grant us the wisdom to choose rightlyand the courage to follow through.

Reflections on Pestilence and Sacrifice


I’ve stopped counting the days. Early in the time of lockdown, I fancied that keeping tally of passing sunsets would allow for a purposeful task, however arbitrary, against the despair produced by feeling the world disintegrate. I hoped this would be something like a squirrel’s happy accumulation of acorns before a harsh winter; in reality, it felt more like scratching lines in the wall of a prison cell. So I gave it up.

But it’s been something like a fortnight, perhaps a month. The police have eliminated all public expressions of conviviality—parks, tennis courts, and lakefront beaches have been blocked off for weeks—and corporations have stepped in to deliver endless superficial mantras about solidarity and hope “in these challenging times.” I try to remind myself that it is temporary—maybe. In the warm, floral spring breeze one can catch the occasional scent of endlessness, the dismal sense that the lively public world is gone forever and fleshy human togetherness has been permanently replaced by stilted video-conferences and texting. The springtime has never felt emptier of hope.

Early on in the plague-time, I took a week off of work. During this period, and before the forced closure of the public world, I wrote about the loveliness of the lockdown: how the cessation of American normalcy had allowed us a glimpse of a way of living less predicated on restless money-making, more centered around delighting in leisure and the splendor of creation. (I still, from time to time, feel this.) But I was also scared. The virus was sweeping rapidly through the country while every authority in the country either actively downplayed the threat (“it’s contained,” “it’s just the flu,” “the bigger problem is racism”) or simply said nothing while making no apparent preparations. The delusional optimism of the former is inexcusable: prudent governance, as far as I can tell, operates on a heuristic of pessimism. But the latter, I think, were simply afraid, and they have my sympathy. Who wouldn’t be horrified into immobility by the idea having to make decisions for the sake of an entire city or state as a poorly-understood pandemic hurtles unstoppably toward you?

Since then, I’ve returned to work. The readjustment has been surreal: the bookstore, once a bustling hub of activity, has been closed to the public and converted into a shipping operation. The display tables—once so carefully tended to, garden-like—have become storage areas, covered in chaotic, unpoetical stacks of books. Masked coworkers bustle through the stacks, hunting for mailordered titles while carrying out an absurd, comical dance of attempting six feet of distance from one another. It’s great, of course, to have the certainty of income during a time when such a thing is increasingly scarce. But it’s also deeply weird to feel like my job—structurally an entry-level retail position, even if it feels more meaningful than that—is now on the “front line” of a global crisis.

Which is why I’ve found all of this forced optimistic sloganeering increasingly intolerable. The slogans serve an exclusively therapeutic function for those who face none of the danger. It means nothing to repeat “We’re all in this together!” as someone whose most pressing anxiety is whether you’ll get too annoyed at your spouse and kids while working from home at your reasonably-well-paying job with full benefitsand then to do nothing else. This recent article in the Atlantic says what’s been so desperately needed to be said for so long now: that “front line” workers—nurses, of course, but also grocery store clerks, Amazon delivery drivers, Target employees, and so forth—are not heroes, but victims. This is true—but there are victims, and there are victims. These people are not victims in the judicial sense, the harmed party of a crime for whom we demand justice. They are victims in the religious sense: they are the blessed ones whom we praise on their walk to the slaughter-bench, the offering we give to satiate the hungry gods of our economy. For victims of a crime, we demand recompense, that the world be set right on account of their undeserved suffering. The holy suffering of the sacrificial victim, however, is what sets the world right—and for this, we offer only praise and thanksgiving.

At the end of a revealing monologue in Camus’ “The Plague,” the ex-militant Tarrou declares: “All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.” To praise the sacrifice of others with no concern for how we might do them justice is to join forces with the plague. If we are going to emerge from this crisis with any shred of our dignity, we need to think hard about what we have to do to avoid crafting such a nefarious alliance.

Paradise, Indeed


The crowd around the campfire had dwindled from twenty or so to about six, but the darkness—and the weed—made it hard to count the faces. The guitar passed from hand to hand, each person taking a turn barking out some song in a voice equally off-key and earnest. (I probably played something by Neutral Milk Hotel.) It was 2005, and I was 17 years old: I had just graduated high school, my last year spent getting high, reading whatever of Daniel Quinn’s bibliography I could obtain from the public library, and going on multiple-hour-long walks to parts of Huntington, West Virginia I’d never seen. And in the summer after commencement (which, naturally, I did not attend) I had hopped in a van with two of my best friends and drove to the southern part of the state to learn how to become environmental activists.

My interest was sincere. I was baptised into political consciousness somewhere between the collapse of the World Trade Center and the invasion of Iraq, and after watching the night-vision footage of cruise missiles falling on Baghdad, I took to sewing homemade patches on my jackets displaying messages like “WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER,” “NO BLOOD FOR OIL,” and “MARXIST.” (I barely understood the Communist Manifesto, but I believed it was right.) A native West Virginian friend of mine (I’d been transplanted there after my freshman year) had introduced me to the horrors of strip mining, and we gradually transformed ourselves into anarcho-environmentalists by way of Crimethinc. literature, Earth First! documentaries, and—maybe most influentially—Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. The suffocating drudgery of both the classroom and my home life had intensified my adolescent sense of urgency to do something, to march bravely out into the world and stop the evil that was so clearly winning in the cosmic struggle between light and dark. Like all young men, I wanted to be a hero.

Thus I had no patience for the strategy of slow and measured engagement insisted upon by the nonprofits running the activist training camp. Somewhere between the “De-Escalation Workshop” and the lecture on “anti-oppression” my friends and I checked out, retreating to an abandoned print shop to smoke joints and shoot the shit. And, of course, to play guitar. I was inaugurated into the cult of “Wagon Wheel,” Old Crow Medicine Show’s recording of it having appeared one year prior. Someone played Phil Ochs’ “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” But deep into the night—with the stars glittering overhead and the THC buzzing in our heads—someone started strumming a D-chord in the style of a waltz, and something in the air changed. A reverent hush settled over the circle. But after a few bars, a wiry voice broke through: “When I was a child, my family would travel…”

Some songs are good; some songs are great. And some—often by virtue of something beyond its composition or recording—arrive as revelations, striking the hearer like a lightning bolt and sinking irrevocably into the soul. To describe “Paradise” as “a song I love” comes nowhere near to grasping the dimensions of its importance: for several years of my early twenties spent hitchhiking and riding freight trains between anti-globalization protests and environmental campouts, “Paradise” served as an anthem, a rallying cry, a source of solace and peace. It was part of the air my friends and I breathed, something necessary for life. One of the most meaningful friendships of my life was solidified by singing it over and over during a 12-hour drive from Minnesota to West Virginia; it was on my lips during countless solitary walks down highways and stretches of train track. Though we never became the heroes we dreamed of, “Paradise” nonetheless served as our Iliad, standing as a constant, fixed source of our values, hopes, and longings. Like Homer with the Achaeans, John Prine spoke us into being.

I know how silly this all sounds. But when you’re a small-town teenager with a penchant for romance and a lousy education, your reference points are going to seem strange and perhaps arbitrary. Before I learned that John Prine was a living, contemporary country artist still touring and recording albums, I’d assumed him to be something like the Bard: a legendary old folk singer who walked the earth in a time when men were stronger and taller and the gods could still be heard singing from the mountaintops. But as the image of Prine the hero faded, my awe of his quite mortal capacities for perception and empathy increased. Across the 13 songs of his debut album—recorded when he was just 23 years old—Prine examines the souls of a heroin-addicted Vietnam veteran, a nostalgic middle-aged woman trapped in a loveless marriage, a retired factory worker gone autobiographical, of lonely young people longing to connect but falling repeatedly into solipsism. Each song is its own universe: Bob Dylan famously called the album “pure Proustian existentialism,” but Prine’s capacity for seeing from within the subjectivity of nearly a dozen fully-formed yet fully imagined figures has more in common with Fernando Pessoa.

And now he’s gone. (God willing, he is now resting in the true Paradise.) But with Prine’s passing, no era has come to a close, since Prine was never a representation of anything beyond himself. He commanded respect from high places, but not a single imitator: he was inimitable, with a keenness of vision surpassing that of most novelists wedded to a dark, but ultimately humane, comic sensibility. There will never be another like him. Maybe now we can recognize him as the legend I had once dreamed him to be.

Good Friday

Today all bread lies unrisen,
all form lies devoid of its shape;
beer is just water and barley,
wine remains locked in the grape—

today the sun is just fire,
a meaningless nexus of heat;
the foundations loosed from the waters,
the land overcome with the sea—

today the cosmos is static,
creation is ground to a halt;
but all in advance of the third day,
the triumph the heavens exalt.

The Loveliness of Lockdown

chicago bw

Update 3/30: I wrote this one day before Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered the closure of the entire Chicago lakefront, due to what she saw as inadequate social distancing and a flouting of the city’s stay-at-home order. I recognize the wisdom in this decision, and the needhowever unfortunatefor making sacrifices like this in times like these. But I also stand by what I saw that day: hundreds of people embracing the warmth of the sun and the beauty of the world while keeping space between one another. And beyond this, a faint glimmer of a different—a better and less cruel—way of living.


It’s day five of shelter-in-place in Illinois. Signs hang in the windows of neighborhood hair salons, record stores, book shops: “CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.” Restaurants and cafes remain in a liminal state between open and closed: through the windows one can glimpse empty dining rooms and kitchen workers standing around in hair nets, waiting for the take-out orders they are still legally permitted to fulfill. But the decline in business has not brought a sense of emptiness. The noise of car traffic, now conspicuously absent from neighborhood streets, has been replaced by spring birdsong. Neighborhood parks are peppered with young people playing sports at a responsible distance—tennis, frisbee, kickball—while joggers pass the occasional bookworm enjoying the sunshine on a bench. Near the lake, couples with children play hide and seek amid the trees of Jackson Park and Promontory Point, while those assumedly childless walk their dogs nearby. Lockdown, it turns out, is lovely.

Reality is a kaleidoscope that lockdown has turned. The usual patterns of things have been gently disrupted—and we, in our adaptability and ingenuity, are already finding a footing in our new, unstable conditions. In this cessation of frantic economic activity that usually defines American public life, we catch a glimpse of another possible world: one where our activity is motivated not by blunt necessity or desperate moneymaking, but by relishing in the world and in our togetherness with those whose lives are entangled enough with ours to be part of our quarantine. However temporary it may turn out to be, the suspension of the brutal economization of life that constitutes American “normalcy” has made it possible to imagine a way of living centered on simple delight and human togetherness, and not only for the classes capable of paying for it.

I recognize the possible naivete of my optimism here, that I’m seeing the response of the materially comfortable to a challenge they can easily weather while the poor and precarious suffer all the more. I don’t doubt this is the case. I am surely blind to the real suffering this lockdown is causing just outside the periphery of my vision. Lord knows how many layoffs will result in evictions, themselves resulting in despair, hopelessness, and worse. But these are precisely the people who stand to benefit the most from the anaesthetization of harsh American materialism.

Everything is topsy-turvy in plague time. And positioned as we are at the beginning of this chaotic and rapidly shifting development, we have no idea what shape the future may eventually take. The situation, then, is excellent. Nothing is going to change on its own accord: the plague does not determine a set of changes, but it does provide an opening. May we have the courage to seize this opportunity and to sow loveliness and delight where others would seek to reconstitute—or intensify—its barbarity.

Forgiveness—Christian, and Otherwise,/0/default.jpg

This is the text of a talk I gave on March 8, 2020 as part of a Lenten program at Church of the Ascension, Chicago.

Thank you all so much for being here today. This afternoon, I want to share a story. It is not a particularly special story—there are countless others like it, told by others far more capable and articulate than me—but it’s a story that I nonetheless believe might be of some use to others who are struggling with some of the same challenges I faced while living it. It is a story about family, forgiveness, and ultimately about a curious discovery I made when I found the opposite of what I was looking for.

I want to warn you up front that this talk will not be particularly polite. I will be leaning into some grisly and likely upsetting details of my life—but as Fr. Raymond said in today’s homily, only in darkness are we able to see the light. I promise that all I’ll be sharing has a purpose: to show the small hole I found in the universe, through which God came flooding into my life.

My father’s name was Michael Leonard Keegin. He was a really interesting guy. He was a jazz musician—primarily tenor sax, though he knew his way around the trumpet and flute—and an accomplished photographer. I’ll tell you more about his life in a little bit. But before I do, I want to tell you about his death. In late January of 2018, I flew to Albuquerque, New Mexico to sit at his bedside and give him comfort as he lost his last fight with congestive heart failure. He’d been battling it for years, but in 2017 things took a turn toward catastrophic: the major heart surgery he underwent that spring failed to bring him back to full strength, and he remained so sick and frail that a fall he took in a hotel lobby landed him in the hospital for three weeks. He was only 73. He’d been on oxygen for months, and was convinced that moving from the muddy, low river valley of Memphis to the high desert of Albuquerque had made his already difficult breathing even harder. Finally, after a few weeks of denial of his rapidly deteriorating condition, he agreed to be checked into the hospital again in the hope that they’d fix him up enough to get back to Memphis where he’d get better. This didn’t happen. He died on January 23, 2018.

My dad was interesting, but he was also a very difficult man. The stubborn fixation on a fantasy of restored health in the Mississippi Valley as his body rapidly deteriorated doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of his difficulty. When I flew to Albuquerque, I had long known about his decades-long heroin addiction that he kicked in the 80s only to then make a transition to an angry, chaotic alcoholism. I had known about the three wives he had before marrying my mother, one of whom he wordlessly abandoned when the daughter they had together was three or four years old, and another he so constantly screamed insults at that their marriage ended with her checking herself into a psychiatric hospital. I had known about the dozens of affairs he had while married to my mother, and I had known about the severely cognitively impaired lovechild he hid from her for years, and whom she only learned about after following the thread of several hundred dollars being deducted from their bank account every month. After he said some nasty things to my mom at my brother’s first wedding, my sister and I decided to break contact with him; given that he didn’t reach out for the next 8 years, he seemed fine with this. How we regained contact is another story entirely, and I’ll spare you the details except to say that we eventually began speaking again after nearly a decade. But regardless, all of these things—and many others—were in the back of my mind as my plane hurtled over 2,000 miles of plains and mountains to land me in the New Mexico desert to sit with my dad while he died.

These things were also on the minds of my brother and sister, both of whose relationships with my dad were much worse than my own. My parents separated when I was 6: my brother and dad stayed back in Memphis, while my sister and I went to Florida to live with my mom. My brother’s relationship with our dad was strained and bizarre. At two points over the course of a decade, my brother took our hard-luck father into his home, and both times our dad had taken extraordinary advantage of him, both emotionally and financially. For my sister, my dad’s main problem had been his negligence: after nearly a decade of silence, he reemerged into her life only to be a constant source of judgment and shame. Both had, several years prior to his hospitalization, broken off contact again, and in both cases the hostility seemed mutual.

So though I wasn’t alone when I traveled to Albuquerque—my now-fiancée Bonnie was with me—I wasn’t with any of my siblings. And since at the time I wasn’t a Christian—both my Catholic father and Protestant mother had drifted far from the traditions of their families by the time I was born, and I was raised with no religion to speak of—I had, or so I thought, no God to call upon. When I told my brother the news he insisted on making the drive from Memphis to Albuquerque, but then my dad refused him. My sister seemed almost happy to hear of our father’s suffering. The old family hostilities were rekindled and reconfirmed. Over the next two days, I managed to talk my dad into letting my siblings call him on the phone, to make one last connection before they’d be unable to do so. My brother called the second night I was there and made some kind of peace: he told my dad that he loved him and that he forgave him. His heart clearly wasn’t in it, but he did the right thing, and I’m proud of him for that. My sister, on the other hand, called only after dad’s renal failure had left him unable to speak, and through a waterfall of tears she proceeded to release decades of resentment on him. I’m not even sure he understood. But she got to say what she needed to say, and that was that.

I got my dad settled into a hospice facility and flew back to Maryland. He died two days later. I was devastated, of course. But over the next few weeks, I was surprised to find myself thinking more about my sister than my dad. Why was I so miffed at her inability to forgive him when she still had the opportunity? Would I be able to forgive her for this? Why did I even think she should forgive him? When I really thought about it, what disturbed me most about her continued resentment was that in some kind of objective sense, I couldn’t shake the feeling that she was right. She had been wronged considerably by someone whom she had trusted and loved, someone who was directly responsible for her existence. It made perfect sense that this hurt would beget anger. And yet…

And yet…I was split in two. I remained nagged by the sense that something about this was wrong. That whatever our father’s wrongdoings, it was important to find some way to forgive him. And not just for our sake, so that we could be free of the damage he had done to all of us—though that was part of it. The man I sat with in the hospital was broken, lonely, afraid—and whatever sins he had committed, it seemed important to forgive him for his sake, to release him from his wrongdoings so that he could be free, in full knowledge of his misdeeds. I had no real justification for this; the drive was irrational, the idea absurd. It came as a nagging sense stuck in my gut rather than as an argument I could have articulated to my sister or anyone else. And as a student of philosophy—I was in grad school at the time, and had spent the previous 5 years studying ethics, among other things—it occurred to me that I needed justification, and the wisdom of the past might help me figure out my predicament.

A bit of a warning here: what follows will be extremely brief discussions of thousands of years of intellectual history, from traditions exhibiting enormous complexity of thought from serious and subtle authors. I apologize for the brevity, but I hope you’ll trust that the general shape of my conclusions is accurate.

Because I have always been concerned with the history of ideas as they unfold through time and find it helpful to see where such ideas might have emerged, my inquiries often begin at the beginning: in this case, with the beginning of Western literature, in the epic poems of Homer. Toward the end of the Iliad, after ten years of bloody battle between the Trojans and Achaeans, King Priam of Troy travels to the enemy encampments on the shore of his kingdom to beg for the return of his son Hector’s now-desecrated body. Priam is devastated by grief: he has lost his son, who was not just the bravest warrior of the Trojans but also a loving and devoted father, husband, and son. But so too is the Achaean prince Achilles, whose grief over the death of his brother-in-arms Patroclus led him to kill Hector, refuse him a proper burial, and ultimately to abuse his body by dragging it continuously around Patroclus’s funeral bier for nine consecutive days. Priam, guided by the god Hermes, sneaks into Achilles’s tent under cover of night and wakes Achilles by kissing his hands. As soon as he realizes what is happening, Achilles jolts awake, and Priam immediately makes a desperate plea for the return of his son’s corpse that concludes with an appeal to both pity and piety:

“Honour then the gods, Achilles, and take pity upon me

remembering your father, yet I am still more pitiful;

I have gone through what no other mortal on earth has gone through;

I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children.”

What happens next is subtle but noteworthy:

So he spoke, and stirred in the other a passion of grieving

for his own father. He took the old man’s hand and pushed him

gently away, and the two remembered, as Priam sat huddled

at the feet of Achilleus and wept close for manslaughtering Hektor

and Achilleus wept now for his own father, now again

for Patroklos. The sound of their mourning moved in the house.

Achilles establishes distance from Priam and the two men, sitting next to one another, weep privately for their own personal losses. This continues for some time, and Achilles finally breaks the silence with a speech about fate and the irrelevance of human tears in swaying the decision making of Zeus. The two finally agree on a temporary truce between their respective armies and an exchange of bodies; after the respective funerals, however, the hostilities will continue. Zeus deals out the fortunes of men, whether glorious or terrible; fate controls all, the slaughter must continue, reconciliation is an impossibility. Neither man could dream of crying for the other. There is no forgiveness here.

But Homer is a poet, a bard of the triumphs and failures of heroes; he’s not a philosopher, not the type to subject experience to reflection and to puzzle over the riddles of human life and figure out better courses of action. So I left him behind and looked to Aristotle and the later Hellenistic and Roman Stoics, our earliest examples of systematic ethical philosophy. Looking again to these writers I began to notice a theme: forgiveness is understood primarily in terms of “withdrawing one’s anger,” and the arguments for it are by definition egoistic, concerned with the good only of the one who is doing this withdrawing. Here are a few examples.

In book 4 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the earliest treatise on ethical philosophy, Aristotle describes a person marked by what he calls megalopsychia, roughly translated as “greatness of soul.” A great-souled person has mastered all the other virtues—wisdom, courage, temperance, generosity, and so forth—and has achieved as a result a nobility of spirit that sets them apart from others in their community. They have a sense of self-importance derived, Aristotle believes, from being genuinely more worthy than others. In this respect, they are the ultimate ethical exemplar, our living and breathing model for what a good life looks like. Nonetheless, their nobility does not exempt them from having enemies:

Nor does [the great-souled person] remember past wrongs; for great-souled people do not store things up, especially a memory of wrongs done them, but rather overlook them. Nor does he talk about personal things—he will not talk either about himself or about someone else, since he is not anxious either to be praised himself or to see others censured; nor again does he tend to praise others, which is why he does not speak ill of them either, even his enemies, unless to insult them to their face.

Nor is the great-souled person’s refusal to hold grudges a sign of compassion toward the less fortunate. Rather, his leniency toward the faults of others is a reflection of his own nobility of soul, a way to glorify his wealth of virtue. Because greatness of soul  demands honor, here Aristotle segues into a discussion of the “virtue pertaining to honor,” what he calls being “good-tempered.” Here we see perhaps our clearest elaboration of forgiveness as simply a withdrawal of anger:

For being good-tempered means being unperturbed and not being carried away by one’s feelings but being angry in the way, in the circumstances, and for the length of time the correct prescription lays down; but he seems to err more towards deficiency, since the mild person tends not to look for revenge but rather to be lenient to them.

Aristotle’s elitist and egoist moral system wasn’t quite what I was looking for, but the Epicureans and Stoics had even less to offer. These philosophies are fundamentally therapeutic, set toward the ultimate goal of achieving ataraxia or tranquility, a freedom from mental disturbances and physical pain. Both are egoistic, concerned primarily with the good of the self; and where Stoicism is entirely world-denying, holding that one’s moral disposition is the only thing of importance, Epicureanism is a hedonistic philosophy that regards physical pleasure as the highest good of human existence. In neither of these doctrines is there much room for moral duties toward others that don’t primarily entail the self.

Epictetus is the perhaps the greatest articulator of Stoicism, and in his writing we see the egoistic dimension of Aristotle’s conception of virtue as the moral design of the self taken to its most extreme conclusions:

One who has had fever, even when it has left him, is not in the same condition of health as before, unless indeed his cure is complete. Something of the same sort is true also of diseases of the mind. Behind, there remains a legacy of traces and blisters: and unless these are effectually erased, subsequent blows on the same spot will produce no longer mere blisters, but sores. If you do not wish to be prone to anger, do not feed the habit; give it nothing which may tend its increase.

Anger is ultimately a decision: when we feel angry, we are deciding that anger is a good way to feel. And if anger is to be avoided, it is not out of concern for the well-being of others, but rather that anger destabilizes the proper functioning of the soul, which is to exercise its reason. Hostility, then, is wrong primarily because it is irrational, not because it is harmful to others. And because it is our duty as thinking beings to be maximally rational, we should avoid being angry.

Epicurus, on the other hand, left very little writing behind and we receive his philosophy mostly by way of his disciple Lucretius. And though neither of them had much to say about forgiveness as such, here is Lucretius’ view of the attitude one should take toward the suffering of others:

It’s sweet, when winds blow wild on open seas,

to watch from land your neighbor’s vast travail,

not that men’s miseries bring us dear delight,

but that to see what ills we’re spared is sweet;

sweet, too, to watch the cruel contest of war

ranging the field when you need share no danger.

So this doesn’t tell us much about forgiveness per se. But the implied attitudes toward the suffering of other people and the primacy of one’s own mental tranquility tells us, I think, all we need to know.

Having been disappointed by Greece, I turned my attention to the East. The Buddhist tradition endorses a similar understanding of the need for withdrawing one’s anger for the sake of one’s own spiritual health. Here we find echoed the doctrines of 1) the self as the principal object of ethical attention, and 2) self-purification as the ultimate goal of reflection. Entanglements with the world and with others get in the way of the individual’s journey toward enlightenment. If one is to be lenient toward the wrongdoing of others, it is simply because the karmic order of the world demands this kind of flexibility in order to be properly maintained. Thus, we read in the Dhammapada:

1. “He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.

2. “He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.

3. Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.

4. There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels.

The goal here is a kind of system equilibrium at both the level of the whole and the level of the individual ego. My goal is to make the world have less hate in it, but the only way to do this is to have less hate in me. The specificity and particularity of another person disappears altogether, subsumed into a system which one maintains like a rock garden.

At this point in my studies, I felt exasperated. The only philosophical justification for forgiveness, it seemed, had to do with a reflective concern for one’s own condition, not for that of another. I complained to a friend that my search for the philosophical origins of forgiveness have come to naught, that I was beginning to recognize that my urge to prove my sister wrong was silly and that I needed to recognize the sense in her righteous indignation. This friend—a devout Catholic—looked at me with a puzzled look. “You haven’t looked in the Bible?” he said to me incredulously. The only response I could manage to that was “That seems…too easy!” I didn’t really know what I meant by this except that I had always been suspicious of Christianity as being somehow too good to be true, that it papered over the real ugliness of the world with a happy message about hope and love. As far as I could tell, we were alone in a universe that was slowly dying of its own accord, and all we could do in the meantime is stitch together beautiful stories of various kinds to build a shelter for ourselves from the cold indifference of the cosmos—but the indifference of the cosmos is what is real, not the stories we tell. Religion was cowardice, retreat; courage demanded facing the facts, owning up to the meaninglessness of things. And the central doctrines of Christianity, of course, were just so implausible: God and man at the same time? What could be crazier?

But then my friend suggested I read the Gospel of Luke. If you’ve been raised in a Christian tradition, you probably take a familiarity with the Gospel stories for granted. My lack of religious upbringing had meant that all I knew of Christianity was Christmas story and a few other utterly decontextualized tropes: “turn the other cheek” and all that. And though I had developed an interest in religious thinking as a complement to my studies of philosophy, I never actually opened the Good Book to see what was inside.

I want to look at just two places in the Gospel that showed me something completely new, something that as far as I can tell, never comes up in the history of ethical thinking before this moment. The first comes in the passages after the beatitudes, and is probably familiar to all of us here:

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.

The writers I cited earlier in this talk were not stupid: they were some of the smartest, most perceptive and thoughtful people who have ever walked on this planet. Aristotle invented logic; Epicurus was one of the first thinkers to suspect that the things we encounter in the world are actually made up of much smaller parts linked together in various ways. They observed the world with a remarkable keenness of vision, and the conclusions they’ve arrived at represent truly heroic attempts at comprehending the nature of human life using our natural ability to reason. Their thinking is good: they are right that it is good to avoid being angry, and to treat your own soul with kindness and care. And yet for each and every one of them, the idea that we should love our enemies would have registered as self-evidently absurd. They might insist that we avoid having our souls poisoned by grudges, but the idea that we should love people who harm us would be ridiculous to them

Here, Christ tells us to love our enemies; later, he shows us what it means. Let’s look to another passage in Luke, this time from Christ’s crucifixion:

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing.

Again: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Hanging on the cross, in the process of being tortured and executed, Christ looks down onto the people responsible for his death and prays to God to forgive them. He is not ridding himself of anger to achieve spiritual tranquility; he is not trying to restore the karmic balance of the universe; he is not trying to showcase his own virtue. His concern, in the midst of his execution, is for the good of those who have wronged him. And it is entirely for their sake that he utters his prayer of forgiveness.

Of course, I didn’t immediately recognize the significance of what I had discovered in these passages. I went back to my friend and complained again that my mission had failed: I hadn’t found any evidence for what I was looking for anywhere but in the Gospels! What was I supposed to do with that? I was a philosopher, not a Christian. If the brilliant philosophers had completely overlooked something that only appeared later in the Bible, what was I supposed to do? After a few months of reflecting, and struggling, and fighting against the obvious like Jacob wrestling with the Angel, I understood that what I had found was a little hole in the structure of things. And it was through this tiny gap that God came rushing into my life.

So, to conclude, let me venture a few remarks about what I think the Gospel accounts imply for us, and what we simply couldn’t find in philosophy. What Christianity demands of us—what is modeled for us by Christ forgiving his executors as he hangs bleeding on the cross—is decidedly not an egoistic form of forgiveness, one that privileges the tranquility of our spirit over all other things. Christ does not want us to do good out of an urge to protect ourselves. Rather, he gives a new light to the world and tells us to look clearly at one another and to love what we see, in full knowledge of the other’s sinfulness. We are also challenged to see ourselves in this new light, to see the depths of our own wretchedness, and to know that help is always available. This is, I suspect, something of what Christ means when he commands us to “be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” The thing that made the entire universe and each and every one of us in it loves us, all of us, and because he wants us to find and to love him, he came into our world to suffer at the hands of his own creation. He died on the cross so that we might finally understand what it means to love. He knew what we would do to him and came here anyway, out of love—and when we betrayed him, he nonetheless granted us forgiveness. Perhaps nobody has better articulated what I am really trying to say than St. Jerome: “Jesus was born in a dungheap because he knew that’s where he’d find us.” Thanks be to God.