1. Walking

    June 2, 2020 by Chris Motley

    When Mouse Books published excerpts from Henry David Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience, my blog post for the occasion attempted to strike a balance in terms of how we approach Thoreau. Namely, while his philosophy of disobedience provided a pathway for his intellectual inheritors such as Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, we must also reckon with the more “iconic” image of Thoreau as the “self-reliant” recluse. This reclusion, I argued, risks being repackaged (depending, perhaps, on who was your high school English teacher) as a white male fantasy of escape (one that I struggle to resist from time to time). 

    The work of making this distinction continues with Walking. How to acknowledge Thoreau’s political maturity while resisting the temptation to project our fantasies of escape? One passage from the essay offers a useful litmus test. Here, Thoreau is discussing how human affairs quickly dissipate when one is on a walk: 

    Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture, even politics, the most alarming of them all,—I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape. Politics is but a narrow field, and that still narrower highway yonder leads to it. I sometimes direct the traveler thither. If you would go to the political world, follow the great road,—follow that market-man, keep his dust in your eyes, and it will lead you straight to it; for it, too, has its place merely, and does not occupy all space. I pass from it as from a bean field into the forest, and it is forgotten. In one half hour I can walk off to some portion of the earth’s surface where a man does not stand from one year’s end to another, and there, consequently, politics are not, for they are but as the cigar smoke of a man.

    How to work with this passage? On the one hand, we should acknowledge that there is no escaping the political, and that one can not abdicate one’s interconnectedness to the totality of human life. On the other hand, the therapeutic benefits of walking, especially in that space that we call “Nature,” continue to be well-documented in medical and psychological research. On yet a third hand, Thoreau acknowledges the utter indifference of “Nature” toward the human, an indifference which may very well decide our fate as a species. 

    Perhaps we can mitigate these distinctions by tweaking the word “politics.” In general, while Thoreau is certainly referring to the world of official polity, he is also, and this becomes clear in the second half of the essay, referring to the micro-politics of interpersonal conflict, much of which, when we step back, is not worth our precious time and energy. In fact, Thoreau seems to acknowledge that our disregard for our relationship with “Nature” in favor of obsession over our interpersonal conflicts will lead to our collective demise: 

    Here is this vast, savage, hovering mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man,—a sort of breeding in and in, which produces at most a merely English nobility, a civilization destined to have a speedy limit.

    From here Thoreau initiates his critique of “civilization,” labeling it a hall-of-mirrors comprised of shallow manners and useless knowledge. In place of this kind of life, which will indeed (we are now witnessing for ourselves) have disastrous consequences for the collective, he extolls (in a nod to Socrates) the virtues of simplicity and a kind of humble un-knowing:

    A man’s ignorance sometimes is not only useful, but beautiful—while his knowledge, so called, is oftentimes worse than useless, besides being ugly. Which is the best man to deal with—he who knows nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?

    Have we not come upon a useful comment indeed about our age? As social and environmental conflict intensifies to cataclysmic proportions, how much can our “knowledge” really help us if it only exacerbates our interpersonal strife, which is the first domino? 

    There is another litmus test, which was actually my original plan for this post. I was going to speak about how walking through my neighborhood in Washington, D.C., on the same route at the same pace, each day during the quarantine, has been a source of solace, perspective, etc. Much like Thoreau, I can literally forget about what was bothering me twenty minutes ago. But I was also going to speak about the “surreal” feeling of walking through a space that is now haunted by plague, the practice of avoiding people by taking a wide berth, the absurd paranoia of wondering whether I touched something I shouldn’t have, like a tree. But now I am reminded of what I should never forget: that in this country, the very act of safely walking through one’s own neighborhood is not a given for everyone. 

    The inescapability of politics — it is possible that this is what it means to be human. Consequently, could not a good politics begin with ensuring that our natural (and our “civilized”) spaces are walkable, in solitude, for each one of us? 

  2. The Enchiridion

    June 1, 2020 by Chris Motley

    If you search for the word “stoic” on various dictionary web sites, a panoply of words emerges, connoting a range of modalities: indifference, resignation, courage, patience, calm, maturity. Indeed, like with Thoreau, with Stoicism we must face certain popular misconceptions. First, we now use “stoic” as an adjective, to describe a certain state of being, when we should rather think of “stoic” as a noun, to describe someone who follows the way of Stoicism. But when “stoic” is used as a noun, we get something like this definition, from Vocabulary.com: “The noun stoic is a person who’s not very emotional.” Not a reputable dictionary? Let’s try Cambridge: a stoic is “someone who does not complain or show their emotions.” 

    These definitions are perfect examples of how ideology and culture speak through the words we use. How else to describe this gross misunderstanding of Stoicism except to acknowledge that our culture valorizes and polices the very “stoicism” that these web sites define? And, true to our culture, it points in both ways. In certain situations emotionless-ness is regarded as desirable toughness. In others it is regarded as robotic coldness. Look to the protests that are igniting our country: who is allowed to express their anger, and who is asked to remain “stoic”?

    Still, new language has currency in our culture, thanks largely to the flourishing of Eastern religions, especially Buddhism, which exhibits a high degree of compatibility with Stoicism. It is the language of acceptance, the ability to see things, including our own emotions, for what they are. We therefore now have a space in our discourse to develop the recommendations of ancient Stoics, such as Epictetus. 

    The Enchiridion is an ideal tool for beginning with Stoicism. It is beautiful, but also structurally expedient. Rather than develop a single idea from beginning to end, the text consists of micro-chapters that address different facets of the philosophy that Epictetus develops. Consequently, as we read we can identify the chapters that really speak to us in our situation, share insights, piece together a new Stoicism for our times. 

    With that activity in mind, I do want to share one idea that I think is central to Epictetus’ general purpose. He introduces it in the first chapter, indeed in the first sentence: “There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power.”  Making this distinction, Epictetus asserts, will make all the difference in your life. And in order to make that distinction successfully, one must remember one important fact about human nature: it is not that we must know the difference between perception and reality; rather, we must know that perception is reality. Becoming aware of how our perceptions fundamentally shape our experience — this is mindfulness, or nothing is. 

    Once you’ve got your perceptions firmly in the grasp of your awareness, you must make the big move, which is nothing short of becoming a philosopher. Here we come upon my favorite passage of The Enchiridion, in which Epictetus eloquently and forcefully lays out the stakes for your life: 

    Do you think that you can act as you do and be a philosopher, that you can eat, drink, be angry, be discontented, as you are now? You must watch, you must labor, you must get the better of certain appetites, must quit your acquaintances, be despised by your servant, be laughed at by those you meet; come off worse than others in everything—in offices, in honors, before tribunals. When you have fully considered all these things, approach, if you please—that is, if, by parting with them, you have a mind to purchase serenity, freedom, and tranquillity. If not, do not come hither; do not, like children, be now a philosopher, then a publican, then an orator, and then one of Caesar’s officers. These things are not consistent. You must be one man, either good or bad. You must cultivate either your own reason or else externals; apply yourself either to things within or without you—that is, be either a philosopher or one of the mob.

    Here we can return to the idea of cultural currency. While for many the idea of being a small-s stoic remains that image of an emotional void, many others, especially members of the technocratic billionaire class, are now drawn to big-S Stoicism as a road map for the future human, who has at last done away with what Epictetus consistently calls our “wretchedness.” For these individuals and their devotees (along with many Western enthusiasts of “mindfulness”) the purpose of life is to obtain, as Epictetus points out here, “serenity, freedom, and tranquility.” 

    But we must now contend with the next cultural misconception, about these high ideals. I suggest that the technocrats and billionaires misread Epictetus’ first sentence. Rather than accepting that there are things which are beyond our power, they might re-translate this sentence to read like this: There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are not yet within our power. This aspirational Stoicism aims to use the tools of “serenity, freedom, and tranquility” to gain a final, unwavering power, a leap in our evolution, where the raw and open human becomes a dominable, optimizable machine. But return to the passage I have quoted here. To achieve “serenity, freedom, and tranquility” is not to be in control, and it is most certainly not to relax and detach. Rather, to become the philosopher that Epictetus describes is to free oneself from the desires of the mob. The freedom you gain is the freedom of your mind, and not the freedom of preference and control for which so many now strive. To be a Stoic is to be downwardly mobile, and therefore unrecognizable to the culture, not standing astride it. The commodification of Stoicism that we now see at the upper echelons is little more than another bastardization, and a dangerous one at that.  

  3. The Decameron

    April 14, 2020 by Chris Motley

    “First Day”

    Editor’s Note: This blog post was written in the early days of COVID-19 quarantine. It therefore express a “First Day” kind of mentality in response to it. This point is relevant, because we have reached a point when we can track how our engagement with quarantine has evolved over these months. We can look back on earlier thoughts and even writings, and wonder how they hold up. 

    One concept that arises during times like these is what I’ll call “referentiality.” The entire world shares the same frame of reference right now, and so my question is about the extent to which this virus will become all that we talk about–and write about and create art about. But while the virus rages outside, the entertainment industrial complex rages inside. We are the generation of the televisual binge. There is plenty to look at, plenty of sand to bury our heads in. I like to say to my students (and anyone, really): you are what you pay attention to. The World Health Organization has advised that we now only check the news twice, maybe even once, per day. We are reminded that at any given moment, we must grapple with what we think and talk about.

    This concept of “referentiality” appears prominently in the “First Day” of The Decameron. The entire book opens with the narrator’s commentary on the state of the plague in Florence. It is eerily similar to what we are dealing with now (albeit with key differences, such as piles of corpses in the streets). The narrator, perhaps like some of us, wonders if the pestilence is “the operation of the heavenly bodies or of our own iniquitous dealings, being sent down upon mankind for our correction by the just wrath of God.” What does it all mean? Some entity out there must be pretty upset if this is happening. But more realistically, the narrator is considering the interpersonal and societal effects of plague. It turns loved ones on each other: 

    This tribulation had stricken such terror to the hearts of all, men and women alike, that brother forsook brother, uncle nephew and sister brother and oftentimes wife husband; nay…fathers and mothers refused to visit or tend their very children.

    This interpersonal dissolution leads to larger social fraying, bordering on the dystopian imagination that we so frequently indulge today:

    In this sore affliction and misery of our city, the reverend authority of the laws, both human and divine, was all in a manner dissolved and fallen into decay, for [lack of] ministers and executors thereof, who, like other men, were all either dead or sick or else left so destitute of followers that they were unable to exercise any office, wherefore every one had license to do whatsoever pleased him.

    From this situation, the plot emerges, which is rooted in the frantic desire to survive: 

    From these things and many others like unto them or yet stranger divers fears and conceits were begotten in those who abode alive, which well nigh all tended to a very barbarous conclusion, namely, to shun and flee from the sick and all that pertained to them, and thus doing, each thought to secure immunity for himself. 

    Enter our ensemble of young women and men, who decide to exercise their considerable privilege to abscond to the countryside and wait things out. And why not? Pampinea opines, 

    What look we for? What dream we? Why are we more sluggish and slower to provide for our safety than all the rest of the townsfolk? Deem we ourselves of less price than others, or do we hold our life to be bounden in our bodies with a stronger chain than is theirs and that therefore we need reck [think] nothing of aught that hath power to harm it? We err, we are deceived; what folly is ours, if we think thus!

    Do we need to think “nothing of aught that hath the power to harm” our bodies? Is the plague the only thing that will define us anymore? This is folly for Paminea, who concludes:

    [B]ut methinketh it were excellently well done that we, such as we are, depart this city, as many have done before us, and…betake ourselves quietly to our places in the country, whereof each of us hath great plenty, and there take such diversion, such delight and such pleasance as we may, without anywise overpassing the bounds of reason.

    Indeed, a villa in the country sounds nice right about now (or any time), with the “plenty,” “diversion,” “delight,” and “pleasance” it might provide. But in The Decameron, what constitutes the main “diversion”? Stories. Stories upon stories upon stories, amounting to a hundred. A binge, if you will. 

    Pampinea sets the format for how the storytelling will proceed, and first up is Pamfilo. We are presented again with the question: if you are holed up during quarantine, and you are asked to tell a story to pass the time, will you tell a story about the plague, to keep the conversation relevant, or will you opt for “diversion”?

    Pamfilo’s story does a little bit of both. He tells about how one handles impending death. So, yeah. Relevant. But Ciapelletto is certainly an interesting choice. “False witness he bore with especial delight,” says Pamfilo. He is so consistently devious that he is a type, an emblem. But I am trying to put a name to the type of archetype that Ciapelletto might express. Someone who has a puckish relationship with truth and truth-telling. I am thinking of Harry Frankfurt’s prescient essay “On Bullshit,” in which he describes bullshit not as lying, but as a discourse that disregards truth and falsehood altogether. This is Ciapelletto, a bullshit artist. But he is true to himself, to the end, to the extent to which that he lies to a friar on his deathbed. And this is where the political theme enters. The friar buys the bullshit. And so Pamfilo says, in the last paragraph, “Thus, then, lived and died Master Cepperello da Prato [his proper name] and became a saint.” I like the translation on Brown University’s Decameron Web Project: “So lived, so died Ser Cepperello da Prato.” Consistent to the end, unphased by the prospect of death.  

    By its end the first story therefore becomes a meditation on the power of language and storytelling itself. In so doing it skewers the Catholic Church, who falsely reserves some kind of magical power to canonize and to send to (and restrict from) heaven. 

    How will we use language and storytelling during our time of plague? Moreover, how will we deal with those who bear false witness with special delight? 

  4. On Solitude

    April 5, 2020 by Chris Motley

    Like everyone else, we had our plans. Plans for a year of publishing more dynamic and provocative texts, based on our interests and certain landmark occasions (such as the election, which has become for many an afterthought along with so much else). Plans to engage with our subscribers about the questions that fascinate them, with hopes of bringing people together to elevate their experiences of life. 

    The world changed. We at Mouse came together to think about how to respond. What words, concepts, and texts can we offer right now? We arrived at “Solitude.” We thought this term could present a fruitful contrast to similar words such as isolation, distancing, loneliness, separation, etc. One question that I am asking myself is whether we are dealing with a temporary but necessary adjustment in order to return to normal as quickly as possible, or whether we are dealing with an upheaval, a moment when we will rethink how we do things, how we design our society, how we care for each other, and whose needs we ignore. That question applies to us as individuals as well. How can we change our lives and patterns? If we want to go back to “normal,” what was it about “normal” that we want back? Were there things about our “normal” lives that we are now relieved to do without? 

    Can we approach a period of forced solitude the way a caterpillar approaches a cocoon? 

    In typical Mouse fashion, the texts we have chosen for this impromptu series approach the question of solitude from multiple angles and contexts. 

    We can begin with Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (c.a. 1353), which in its own right is a groundbreaking work in European literary history. It is an apt choice for this particular series because it addresses the situation from which it arises: the Black Plague of 1348. The selection from the text that we have chosen both comments on the plague and presents the narrative conceit of the whole book: the retreat from the city, and a binge on stories. Through this story we are invited to reflect on how stories carry us through crisis and indeed prepare us for death (or not). 

    The other two selections also focus on contemplative and reflective activity that takes place in solitude. Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Walking” expounds on the physical and psychological health that arises from taking a walk, benefits which contemporary research continues to confirm. The text raises questions about other simple practices that can sustain us. Finally, there is Epictetus’ Enchiridion, a foundational text in the philosophy known as Stoicism. In our world today we have misconceptions about what it means to be “stoic.” Engaging this text together can help us get closer to Epictetus’ profound vision for a healthy spiritual life rooted in accepting what is real.

    Finally, we present these books and their supplementary materials under the knowledge of how quickly things change. For example, certain blog posts (such as the post on the Decameron) were finished in the early days of quarantine, while others were finished months later. Rather than attempt to revise the older work to fit new realities, I have left them as-is, as a kind of micro-record of the evolution underway. Another example, as I write these words, I was tempted to say something about how Thoreau posits walking as a deeply personal act that is unmediated by culture and therefore can’t be co-opted or taken away. But at the same time, many people in our country can not leave their house for a walk without facing the possibility that they will be killed by the police. This fact is so easy to forget, but now we have entered, alongside the quarantine, what for many feels like a final reckoning.