Category Archives: Uncategorized

Bridges to the Future Lecture Sept 30 2010 – The Shaking of Foundations

  The Shaking of the Foundations

(Toward the Reformation of the Social Contract in the 21st Century)


A University Lecture

The University of Denver

September 30, 2010

By Buie Seawell


The foundations of the earth do shake.  Earth breaks to pieces, earth is split in pieces, earth shakes to pieces, earth reels like a drunken man, earth rocks like a hammock; under the weight of its transgression earth falls down to rise no more! 


Isaiah 24:18



First, a poem made famous on NPR on the day of the 9/11 tragedy:


September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden


Against the backdrop of a universe 13.7 billion years old that is now estimated to be 93 billion light-years in diameter, the historic upheavals experienced by a species called homo sapiens on a tiny planet near the edge of a medium-sized galaxy may seem of little consequence.  Of course, if you happen to be a member of that species, with a personal investment in the lives of thirteen grandchildren and their futures, you may not share that cynical perspective.  Astronomical perspectives retreat at light speed into the cosmic background when I look into the eyes of my beautiful grandchildren.


Nonetheless, we humans have entered a time between the times.  A time that aptly fits my definition of epoch: “a period of history where the conventional wisdom of the recent past serves little purpose in understanding the immediate future.”  In this lecture I hope to draw on some quite unconventional wisdom in at least suggesting a framework for the great task of our species in this 21st Century.  A century (or perhaps better, an epoch) which had a quite precise beginning: 8:46 AM on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. 


The task is that of survival.  And the issue is the nature of the human species itself.  And when survival is on the line, no small thoughts are permitted.  The foundations of the earth are shaking, and the thoughtfulness needed is precisely that, foundational in nature.  I want to address the most basic, fundamental, foundational aspect of human association – The Social Contract – and the framework for its reformation in the epochal years ahead. 


My perspective is that of Thomas Hobbes (1588 to 1679).  In the classes which follow this University Lecture, I look forward to exploring the thoughts of four radical thinkers in this unique arena – Hobbes, John Locke  (1632 – 1704), Jean Jacques Rousseau (1717 – 1778) and John Rawls (1921 – 2002).   Each of these “public philosophers” addressed in both similar and distinctive fashion the groundwork for social contract formation, and I believe each has something quite distinctive to say to us voyagers on Spaceship Earth on how to survive human kind’s most perilous passage toward its future.  Suffice it to say, the institutions of the 20th Century’s international Social Contract – all shaped in the aftermath of The Great Depression and The Second World War – the so-called Breton Woods agencies, plus the United Nations, are today at best not up to the challenges ahead or at worst, moribund and waiting burial.


But tonight I want to focus on Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury.  During 2009 (thanks to the generosity of this University) I was able, on sabbatical at Oxford (where he matriculated in 1603), to live with the old boy for a while and come to realize just how definitive his life and work are for the human project I propose tonight – reframing the Social Contract of Mankind for the 21st Century.


Before we turn to Mr. Hobbes, I want to quote one of the 20th Century’s finest poets, W. H. Auden:


Alone, alone, about a dreadful wood

Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind,

Dreading to find its Father lest it find

The Goodness it has dreaded is not good:

Alone, alone, about our dreadful wood.


Where is that Law for which we broke our own,

Where now that Justice for which Flesh resigned

Her hereditary right to passion, Mind

His will to absolute power? Gone, Gone.

Where is that Law for which we broke our own?


The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss,

Was it to meet such grinning evidence

We left our richly odoured ignorance?

Was the triumphant answer to be this?

The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.


 We who must die demand a miracle.

How could the Eternal do a temporal act,

The Infinite become a finite fact?

Nothing can save us that is possible;

We who must die demand a miracle.

Alone, alone, about a dreadful woo

– W. H. Auden, ”For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” (1941-1942)


Thomas Hobbes would have appreciated Auden’s poem.  Not simply because of its dark mood, though Hobbes could be dark indeed as he looked at the human prospect from the tortured perspective of 17th Century England, but because of the poem’s deep understanding of the crisis genetically imbedded in the evolution of the species: “The Pilgrim’s Way has lead to the Abyss . . .”


In so many ways, Thomas Hobbes is a man for our season.  I want to put three aspects of Hobbes’s persona and public philosophy in salient context:


Hobbes is first and foremost a foundational thinker; that is, he is radical in the best sense: he goes to the center point of things, the crux, the definitive issue.  Hobbes did not live on the periphery of the life of his time.  He was in the eye of the hurricane; he understood from within the tempestuous nature of politics at its worst.  Given the challenges of our own time, nothing less is required of us – us the species but particularly us the University, the academic community.  And, I want to dwell on that a short while.  Second, Hobbes’s anthropology is astoundingly appropriate to our own time.  And, I want to talk about that.  Third, Hobbes understands clearer than almost anyone the necessity of structural accountability for the survival of the civil order.  He called his beast, Leviathan.  And with some apprehension in this time of Tea Parties and Libertarian aversion to constraints of any fashion, I’ll talk of that. 


First then, Hobbes the man – the man for our season, the prototype of the public scholar


A German Lutheran theologian had predicted 1588, the year of Hobbes’s birth, to be the year in which the world would end.  Hobbes’s mother (we do not know her name) told him that she went into childbirth early fearing the prediction would come true any moment.  The Spanish Armada lay off the coast of England; and in that simple woman’s mind, it was the agency of the Apocalypse itself.  Said Hobbes later, “My mother gave birth to twins that year – myself and Fear.”  How his mother’s vulnerable and anxious state actually affected the young Hobbes is, of course, pure speculation.  But the correspondence between her fear and the grounding of his public philosophy in fear itself is at least not idle speculation.  Very simply, the quaking earth with the emergence of a new epoch rocked Thomas Hobbes’s cradle.


Hobbes’s mother would soon pass away, and his father, a drunk Anglican priest, fled Malmesbury to avoid arrest for failing to appear in a matter involving his assault of a fellow priest and was never heard of again.  Fortunately, a rich uncle and a brilliant teacher rescued the orphaned Hobbes.  And his teacher Robert Latimer must surely have done a fine job with the boy; Hobbes arrived at Oxford, age 15, writing Latin and Greek and knowing mathematics.  The year of his entry into Magdalen Hall at Oxford was the year of Elizabeth I’s death and the end of the Tudor reign and the beginning of the turbulent years of the Stuarts.  A new era of Anglo-American history was dawning.


Hobbes did not take well to Oxford, nor Oxford to T. Hobbes.  He would recount in later years that he spent most of his time while at Oxford looking at old maps, day-dreaming, no doubt about the wide world far beyond the scholastic sanctuary of Oxford, and trapping jackdaws!  The Academy and Hobbes were never to be close friends.  And with good reason.  The academic community of Great Britain in the 17th Century was dominated by the church, was wedded to out-dated Aristotelian science and in no way wanted to get embroiled in the political upheavals of England’s most chaotic century.  Someone whose every publication challenged Church, State and Academy was dangerous.  And the academy criticized him no end.  One charge was that he voiced opinions with insufficient scholarship, that he didn’t read enough books!  Since Hobbes was a voracious reader, this could have only meant he didn’t read the “right” books!


Thomas Hobbes never let rejection by the Academy get in the way of his work as a public scholar.  Both in science and in politics, his extraordinary career would challenge Crown, Church and Academy. If the old political cliché is correct, i.e. a person’s character can be judged best not by his friends, but rather by his enemies, Hobbes’s resume of contemporaneous opponents is quite impressive:  Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650, in an exchange of letters that became increasingly dismissive on both sides, Descartes dismissing Hobbes’s excessive materialism and Hobbes, Descartes’ dualism.); Spinoza (1632 – 1677, who agreed with much of Hobbes’s radical political thought, but significantly disagreed on the role of rationality in human nature, and was also far more democratic in his politics than Hobbes.); Robert Boyle (1627 – 1691, a gentleman scientist whom many consider the father of modern chemistry and of “Boyle’s Law,” argued with Hobbes about the reality of vacuums.); Professor John Wallis (Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford, with whom Hobbes had a most acrimonious set of exchanges both about Hobbes’s flawed attempts to “square the circle” as well as  who was or was not more loyal than whom during the English Civil War.); John Bramhall (1594 – 1662, an Anglican theologian and archbishop with whom Hobbes debated free will and determinism in public as well as in letters and scholarly essays for over a decade.), and almost any prominent churchman of the time, a number of whom after the Restoration sought by act of  Parliament (1666) to have Hobbes tried for heresy and put to death.  A sad aside to this amazing life of public disputation, is that The Royal Society (“The Independent Scientific Academy of the United Kingdom”) never invited Hobbes, a far more accomplished thinker and scientist than 99% of the Society’s membership, to become a member.  So much for the Academy’s commitment to fairness and objectivity!


But my point is this: in times of great social upheaval folks like Thomas Hobbes are sorely needed.  Consider the sorry state of our own politics today and the quality of our public discourse.   Rightly we lament the passing of the political leader who combined both substantial, learned wisdom with the art of politics.  A Louis Brandeis, for instance, who was the Karl Rove to President Woodrow Wilson.  Does that single sentence make my point?  Wouldn’t you die to have an election like 1912 where the choices were Wilson (supported intellectually by Brandeis) and Teddy Roosevelt (seconded by Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life) and Howard Taft.  The country had brilliance and clarity in that year of defining choice.  Today we have spin-doctors and media consultants and direct marketing gurus and the repeated ad nauseam of staying on message.  Why would one want to stay on a message that has no integrity or substance is beyond me.  But I digress.


 I was a fortunate person in my public life.  I worked principally for two men who would have made Pericles proud: Colorado Governor Richard Lamm and U.S. Senator Gary Hart.  They were public officials and politicians, who were also public scholars.  They chose to raise the level of the public debate and honor the democratic process given us by Jefferson, Madison, Adams, et al.  And talk about endangered species?  Where are such voices  “as bad as conscience” today?  My point is simple, in the failure of our politics, the focus of public discourse will of necessity shift for substance and insight to the Academy.  And the role of public scholar awaits those brave enough to address real issues with foundational research, radical thoughtfulness and inspired teaching so that our classrooms become again the crucibles of reformation and enlightenment.


We, those in academia, need without apology, to define anew the role of the radical for the 21st Century.  And the point of departure is not a new treatise on the wonders of academic tenure.  Holding on to jobs when the world has loosed its grip on reality just will not do.  No small thoughts allowed.  There should be a sign at the entrance to the University: Danger. You are entering a University.  No small thoughts allowed!  Hobbes was, if nothing else, the gadfly of a higher education system mired in conventional Aristotelian thinking . . . held hostage by the church . . . and offering next to nothing for the social, cultural and political transition England was fast becoming violently engaged in.


We write helpful, limited-in-scope, peripheral pieces of peer reviewed research, and thus attain tenure, forgetting that the foundational purpose of tenure was to free the scholar to challenge the political and social order itself . . . not simply to provide some paltry form of job security.  Three times the various Parliaments of 17th Century England moved to have Hobbes put to death.  The Universities detested him, as did the Church.  The Royal Society would not accept him as a member although as his first biographer and friend (John Aubrey) said he was the most qualified person in the land for that honor.  Now that’s the kind of resume a public scholar ought to have!


Second, it is all about anthropology.  Hobbes is often criticized for his negative view of the nature of humankind.  And Hobbes is grandly misunderstood.  In the light of 9/11 and in the context of international terrorism, Thomas Hobbes’s anthropology should be listened to most carefully . . . allbeit that it is uninformed by the psychology, neurology and anthropology of our own time . . . because his view of human nature is critically relevant for the 21st Century.


Hobbes’s groundbreaking work in Social Contract theory was to the end of establishing a single and universal principle that put all human beings on the same level, in the same position relative to each other.  Simply, Hobbes was a radical egalitarian.  Beyond social status, or race, or nationality, or culture, or gender (i.e. beyond any conventional category), Hobbes posited that the leveling force of our common humanity was fear.  And for a time burdened by fear, dubbed by Auden as “The Age of Anxiety,” perhaps Hobbes is not far off the mark.


At first blush, this is a truly unpleasant perspective.  But people who live in gated communities and build walls along their borders should not cast aspersions on T. Hobbes!


In my view, not only flight, but also distrust, suspicion, precaution and provision against fear are all characteristic of men who are afraid.  On going to bed men lock their doors; when going on a journey, they arm themselves because they are afraid of robbers.  Countries guard their frontiers with fortresses, their cities with walls . . .


– De Cive, Chapter 1, T. Hobbes



Hobbes’s simple point is this . . . human beings have quite naturally insecurities, apprehensions and fears . . . and these are common to us all.  Worst, politicians, of the Machiavellian ilk, know this quite well and use fear as a primary part of their arsenal of coercion and manipulation.  Get people afraid and you can sell them almost any political stupidity.  Such politicians are in approach little different than out-and-out terrorists.  Their violence is just as devastating to the body politic as the terrorist who flew the planes into the Twin Towers those nine years ago. Against this reality of public terrorism, Thomas Hobbes did his finest work.


In a state of nature – i.e. in a situation where there were no protected rights, no laws, no law enforcement – fear acts upon us to create complete social chaos.  Thus his most famous quote:


Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.


–Leviathan, Chapter XIII


And here is the secret to understanding the often misunderstood Hobbes: the purpose of order is civility, the role of the Leviathan is to preserve the peace (The Leviathan Is a Peace Beast), that is, to create the conditions of human flourishing.   A world of seven billion human beings hanging on to survival by a thread, victim to terrorism in unimaginable dimensions, vulnerable to economic chaos caused by rampant and unconscionable gaming of the world economic systems, and upon our overcrowded planet ravaged by pandemics and natural disasters, will not be saved by timidity, good wishes and kind thoughts.  The authority complex of us 21st Century libertarian adolescents may well be the death of us.


A small aside.  The Supreme Court of the United States in its opinion in The FEC vs. Citizens United unleashed the State of Nature on American political process.  With money the sine qua non of political success, the political process is now a war of all against all.  Look at the political ads of even “the good guys”. . . fire is fought with fire and the woods are dry and the fuel is plentiful.  The Free Rider is now the Horseman of a Political Apocalypse. 


Thomas Hobbes never heard of The Prisoner’s Dilemma or the Tragedy of the Commons or the problem of The Free Rider . . . all topics of our graduate business classrooms.  But he would have understood exactly what these 21st Century conundrums are all about.  For it was precisely the tension between human self-interest and our social welfare that was the focus of Hobbes’s scholarship.


His State of Nature, his War of All against All, his understanding that even those selfless and well-intentioned souls cannot maintain a posture of altruism in an environment of unrestrained greed is so on the mark of our own predicament.  Again Auden’s refrain, “The Pilgrim Way has lead to the abyss . . .” We are captives of a singular dilemma, prisoners of our own fearful, defensive selfishness.


So . . .


Third, it takes a beast.  Hobbes was no friend of democratic process although he would come to accept that Parliaments as well as Kings could provide (theoretically at least) the enforcement structure for civility to flourish.  But I think at heart he lived and died a monarchist.  It was not by chance that his great work was named Leviathan.


Fundamentally, Hobbes believed that to be at our best, human beings need to be secure, i.e. unafraid.  The role of the state is to provide precisely this: a civil order.


Hobbes believed that order was more important than freedom.  This, of course, in our place and time is rank heresy.  We are sons and daughters of Patrick Henry.  Give us liberty or give us death!  But do we really mean it?  Are we serious?  The ecological catastrophe that looms over this planet and this species in the next several hundred years is going to put that thesis to the most rigorous of all tests . . . it’s going to be put-up-or-shut-up time for life as we know it.  Two frequent objections to this rather dour analysis, prevalent in my college and in my classrooms:  (1) We humans are good at changing when the chips are down; when the crisis hits, we’ll change our ways and adapt (this is often coupled with a healthy dose of Invisible Hand theory); (2) Technology will save us (i.e. we’ll innovate our way out of Armageddon.).


One of the true radicals of our time, John N. Gray (recently retired from The London School of Economics and resident of Oxford) minces no words about his hope that we shall be saved by technological progress:


The core of the belief in progress is that human values and goals converge in parallel with our increasing knowledge.  The Twentieth Century shows the contrary.  Human beings use the power of scientific knowledge to assert and defend the values and goals they already have.  New technologies can be used to alleviate suffering and enhance freedom.  They can, and will, also be used to wage war and strengthen tyranny.  Science made possible the technologies that powered the industrial revolution. In the Twentieth Century, these technologies were used to implement state terror and genocide on an unprecedented scale.  Ethics and politics do not advance in line with the growth of knowledge – not even in the long run.


Harry Truman was more succinct: “I hope for some sort of peace, but I fear machines are ahead of morals by some centuries.”


The problem is not that we are unable to invent amazing new technologies; we just don’t seem to have the moral will to employ our inventions toward the end of our own survival.  The issue of our time is not technological; it is principally ethical.  We humans are abundant in means and pathetic in will.  That said . . .


It then would seem to me that at least three things (though there are probably more) are needed if we are able to reframe the Social Contract in a manner sufficient to survive the coming crises of this century:


(1)          Scholars willing to live up to their calling and challenge conventional truth;


(2)          A reframed understanding of human nature, beginning with real clarity about how fragile and vulnerable our nature truly is, and the inimical character of fear when combined with our politics;


(3)          A less romantic attitude about the efficacy of our political economy, i.e. Democratic Capitalism.


And so . . .


I don’t want to be blamed for calling you here to deliver myself of clear and radical affirmations and then in the breach deliver a flea – or is it a pea? I forget.  I want to end with three direct statements based on a life lived in ministry, law, politics and education.  My only supporting documents or references are myself and this life:


So three blunt statements:


  • The political economy we believe in – Democratic Capitalism – is failing.  There are fundamentally only two tasks: providing the context of civility (i.e. governance) and distribution (the allocation of the benefits and burdens of the society).  Civility is not cultured by our politicians; fair distribution is not being achieved by our business people: “The Pilgrim Way has lead to the abyss, nothing that is possible can save us.  We who must die demand a miracle.”


  • The miracle referenced above is called EDUCATION.  Lawrence Kohlberg in his pivotal research a generation ago could identify only one common element in a human beings learning to reason at higher levels of moral thought education.  You want Equal Opportunity? EDUCATION.  You want a civil society with greatly reduced requirements of policing and Leviathan force? EDUCATION.  You want this species to survive the nightmarish prospects of terrorism, disease, ecological collapse, economic chaos: EDUCATION. 


  • And since we are in an educational institution . . . a single unnerving suggestion that will insure my infamy: Combine Daniels, Sturm and Korbel . . . and become the most important school of relevant graduate education in the world.  But, of course, egos and the tyranny of the practical would never allow such a thing.  Get over it.  Nothing that is possible can save us.



Thomas Hobbes’s perspective on human life and society is likely not your own.  He was an unlikely person.  He understood what a force fear was in manipulating all of the human enterprise.  And he fought it with all his mind and physical being.  He lived through a tormented epoch of human history, where fear and the ungodly combination of religion and politics wreaked havoc on his land.  And yet, as they said in the old days of a profession called journalism, “without fear or favor,” he spoke his mind and his truth.  And when the old public scholar finally laid it down at last, these were his final words: “Death standing close . . . I am not afraid.”


With the human prospect hanging in the balance of this century before us, one can only pray that fearless voices will yet arise, fearless institutions yet emerge, fearless leaders come forth.   My hope is yet that the Academy may yet rid itself of its timid public posture and be a part of a new Renaissance of scholarship and advocacy for a planet in a world of hurt.  My love of this University has always kept my hope alive that such is still possible.


And so I conclude with Auden’s most beautiful and hopeful lines . . .


He is the Way.

Follow Him through the land of Unlikeness,

You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.


He is the Truth.

Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;

You will come to a great city that

has expected your return for years.


He is the Life!

Love Him in the World of the Flesh

And at your marriage all its

occasions shall dance for joy.


A Simple Christmas

A Simple Christmas

From Songs of Gentle Sadness

by Buie Seawell

I’m sure I don’t have to work too hard to persuade you that Lumberton, NC, in December of 1945 was a simple place. It was simply wonderful. It was simply strange.

The War ended in May. My sister, Terrell, was born in June. Mom, Dad, and I were finally back from Washington, DC, to our cosy home on 20th Street. A proud brother welcomed his baby sister to “his” room on the first floor and tried to adjust to living upstairs in the guest room. With its massive Dutch-oven fireplace, the dearest, warmest kitchen, slate roof and split rail fence, our Cape Cod cottage of a house remains fixed in my mind and heart as what anything called a home should feel and look like. Only our home in Keystone, Colorado (where I’m writing this story on Christmas Eve of 2009), comes even close to the secure emotional-encompassing of 206 20th Street, Lumberton. It had seven (the perfect number!) rooms – living room, dining room, kitchen, two downstairs and one upstairs bedroom, and one bathroom. Simply perfect.

Actually, when Mom and Dad and I first came home from Washington in the late fall of 1944, * we moved in with my grandparents and their 34-year-old daughter Pearl. Aunt Pearl was special too. She was – the word used in that world before political correctness – “retarded.” At seven years old I didn’t know that word. My aunt, whom I called Pearl, was just my friend. Mentally we were about the same age and we both liked to be silly. In a very adult world, Pearl made childishness acceptable. People are fond of saying, “Childhoods are too short . . . kids are forced to grow up too quickly.” Not Pearl. She lived in an eternal childhood. We loved each other very much.

Pearl was named for my Grandmother, Pearl Johnson Poole, the mother of Pearl. And how lucky she was to have my Gran as her mother. Gran Poole is the most loving person I have ever known. She put up with Papa, raised four kids including my Mom, ran her big house at 1107 Elm Street (phone number “135”) as a place where no one was a stranger, and made the life and gardens of The First Presbyterian Church both her work and refuge. Pearl never knew she was different. Gran made sure of that with a grace and openness to all life that came and went along Elm Street, “This is my wonderful Pearl,” she would say to anyone, stranger or friend that came our way.

My Gran had a strange younger sister named Clare. Aunt Clare was a writer and artist of theatrical proportions. She was a presence. Pearl didn’t much like Clare. Clare would talk loud while hugging Pearl and saying things like, “Oh! our special, special Pearl.” I would run out back to avoid throwing up in Gran’s parlor. One Christmas during the Depression, Clare gave Pearl a pin-cushion. It was pink with white lace. When Clare came to visit from her home in Cary, Gran prompted Pearl to thank her aunt for the pin-cushion. . “Thank you Aunt Claire for my pin-cushion,” little 4 foot 8 inch Pearl said, her round, beautiful face turned up towards her towering aunt, “I always wanted one . . . but not very much.” In this and in every way, Pearl was true to who she was and to all those she ever encountered.

Gran took Pearl out of school in the 6th grade. There was no such thing as special education in Lumberton. Or depending on your perspective, any education in Lumberton in 1924, was special. Kids now and then can be awfully cruel. And besides, Gran had said, she needed Pearl’s help at home. Pearl did things for Gran like taking the grocery list to Snow’s Market on Chestnut street once a week, or going to the Presbyterian Church to help in the gardens or to prepare the silver trays with bread and shot glasses of Welch’s Grape Juice for Communion Sunday, or at Christmas time to help Gran make butter mints and salted toasted pecans.

Mint making was an event. To begin with the weather had to be just right, cool and dry. Early December days often afforded this perfect concurrence. Pearl and I would help take the white and gray marble slabs (purchased from the stone mason who made all the headstones for Meadowbrook Cemetery) out to the screened-in back porch. Gran, sometimes with Mom’s help, would get the sugar, butter and water concoction going on the big stove in her big kitchen. A candy thermometer was critical to the process, the lava of sweetness had to be just the right temperature. When it was, with admonitions to stand clear (“This stuff will scald you awfully!”), Gran would take the big pot in both hands out to the porch and pour the molten mixture on the cold marble. And then from a little green bottle, spirits of mint was poured on the nascent candy. Gran with buttered, delicate pink hands gingerly touched the edges of the glassy substance, and then as it cooled with folding and twisting and pulling and snipping with big kitchen scissors, the magic of turning it all into white, melt in your mouth goodness was completed. When the mints were completely cooled they would be put in wax paper lined round tin Christmas boxes, and covered to sit a day or two before they softened into melting sweetness fit for the mouth of God.

One Christmas, when Pearl was living with us on 20th Street, and Gran and Papa had passed away, my Daddy did a silly thing. Pearl always got so excited about all the family rituals of Christmas – the mints, the pecans, and especially the enormous turkey with dressing and cranberry sauce and gravy. Mom and Terrell and I had made mints and pecans with Pearl that Christmas. Pearl contributed to these festivities by talking of times gone by and all the relations and neighbors who comprised the substance of life on Elm Street. Pearl literally remembered every name and relationship that touched her life. Savant-like she would recall people and events long lost to all memories save hers. It was so enthralling to hear Pearl, in her tiny high voice, talk on and on about, what happened that year to Miss Parmalee or how Dr. Hardin had worked so hard during the flu epidemic, or why Miss Ethel never married that nice travelling salesman who kept coming by in 1927. Or how Uncle Tom (great uncle, Dr. Thomas Johnson) “was just too good to that crazy wife of his, Aunt Mae.” Pearl would punctuate each remembrance by squealing, “and Buie that’s just the way it was!”

But, as I was saying, Daddy did a silly thing that Christmas. When all the presents were opened, the great pile of wrappings incinerated up the chimney of our big fireplace, and all of us starving and talking about how big the turkey was, Dad called from the kitchen for us to sit down. Mom had made our big dinning room table into a wonder of food and decoration, and there in front of Dad’s place at the head of the table she left space where the big turkey platter would go. Pearl sat on Dad’s left and Mom on his right. Terrell and I were on each side down the table, all watching the door for Judge Malcolm B. Seawell’s entrance with roasted bird. And in he came, platter raised high, and set it before us. Only problem was, that instead of the turkey Dad had placed a little, tiny Cornish hen he had cooked at the same time, on the great platter where the big turkey should be. “I guess I cooked our turkey too long this year and it just shrank,” he said. “Pearl, I’m so sorry.”

Pearl couldn’t hide her disappointment. But looking up at my father, a small tear starting down her left cheek, she said, “Malcolm, I know you did just the best you could. We’ll just have to make do.”

Out in the kitchen, there were some words between Mom and Dad that were not fit for this Christmas remembrance, but in short order the biggest turkey in Lumberton appeared on the platter carried by a chastened jurist. Pearl could not believe what had happened to the little hen; then she realized her beloved Malcolm had played a stupid Christmas joke.

But one thing Pearl never learned in her loving, simple life was being judgmental. The past was over and done, every second of her life “all things were fresh and new.” She was God’s incarnation of loving acceptance.

“Aren’t we the luckiest family?!,” Pearl squealed, “Thank you for loving little Pearl.” The Distinguished Jurist of North Carolina’s Ninth Judicial District excused himself from the table for a few minutes. “Now where did Malcolm go?” asked Pearl, “He needs to carve.”

“He’ll be right back,” said Mom. And sure enough, red eyes and all, Dad returned to serve us all the best turkey I ever ate.

* Our house on 20th Street was still being rented by a family named Ware, who had lived there during the War. The Wares moved out in the spring of 1945.

The Serendipitous Patterns of Narrative Ethics

Or Some Funny Things Happened on the Way to the Theatre

Serendipity.  Look for something, find something else, and realize that what you’ve found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for.

– Lawrence Block

You don’t reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings serendipitously.

– John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor

Serendipity is the faculty of finding things we did not know we were looking for.

– Glauco Ortolano

This past week I went to the revival production of Tom Soppard’s Arcadia in London’s West End.  Seeing this beautiful play in its native environment was pure joy.  But the constellation of ideas that played out before and after the experience was simply extraordinary.  The play is a theatrical presentation of serendipity – of coincidence and the magic of human entanglements.  My Oxford sabbatical, now sadly coming to an end, has itself been a lived, serendipitous wonder.  Somehow all of this became dramatically obvious while watching Arcadia.  This is a layered story, both Arcadia and my own experiences surrounding the drama.

One of the great anticipations of coming to Oxford this year was the opportunity to attend the John Locke Lectures in Philosophy – arguably the most prestigious venue for philosophy and ethics in the world.  This year’s lecturer, Harvard’s T. M. Scanlon, is someone I have read (What We Owe Each Other) and admire.   His five lectures were deeply disappointing to me.  The most disappointing part was how inaccessible Professor Scanlon made his presentation.  Reading his pages and without even occasional eye contact with his audience, without as well, metaphor, illustration, narrative or any humanizing reference, he was truly talking to himself.  Well, reading to himself, out loud.

Leaving the final lecture I talked with a friend – Linda McFadden, herself a theologian and author –who had on my invitation come up to Oxford to attend the lecture, about the importance of ethics having a narrative character, no matter the school or approach of the ethicist.  Scanlon is a contractarian in the distinguished tradition of Hobbes, Kant and John Rawls.  But whereas each of those members of the ethical pantheon are famous for their use of metaphor and narrative to explicate their often-difficult ideas, Scanlon, at least upon this occasion, demurred.   All the more surprising in that Scanlon’s lectures were all about how norms are related to motivation and intent, an extraordinary opportunity for giving all those obscure words flesh and sinew.

A few weeks before and quite by accident Linda, who graciously suffered through Scanlon’s Last Lecture with me, happened to run across South African author J. M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace. She had noticed the volume on a bookshelf in the loo of the flat she is borrowing in London.  On the way to attending the Scanlon lecture, as we passed by Blackwell’s Bookstore, we noticed that Coetzee was soon to make a presentation himself in Oxford at the Sheldonian Theatre.  I promised I would get us tickets to Coetzee’s reading.  I had previously downloaded the recording of the novel Disgrace, and was enjoying listening to Coetzee’s absorbing story of a disgraced aging professor and life in post apartheid South Africa.  Two weeks later Linda and I were part of a packed house to hear Coetzee read from his fictional biography, Summertime (2009).

J. M. Coetzee is a shy and pensive presence.  To his obvious embarrassment, he was too elaborately introduced by the chairperson of the English Department of Oxford University.  Like Scanlon, Coetzee read his presentation, seldom looking up or making eye contact with the standing room only audience.  But there all similarity ends. Summertime is a richly human story, intimate, self deprecating, moving.  Coetzee’s own personal risk-taking in the telling of the tale passionately encompassed us all. Then, we the audience further embarrassed the great author by excessive, standing applause.

J. M. Coetzee

J. M. Coetzee

10:00 AM the next morning could not come soon enough for me.  Blackwell’s Book Store on Broad Street Oxford, which had sponsored the Coetzee event, opens at 10:00 AM.  I was there.  Front and center on the ground floor were almost all of Coetzee’s fifteen books – priced 3 for 2!  One of my three purchases was The Lives of Animals.  And bingo (!) there was narrative ethics as it ought to be done.  In 1997 Coetzee was invited to give a series of lectures on ethics at Princeton University (The Tanner Lectures).   The parallels between the Locke Lectures and the Tanner Lectures is more than a little coincidental.  But what Coetzee did at Princeton in 1997 was extraordinary:

“Like the typical Tanner Lectures, Coetzee’s lectures focus on an important ethical issue – the way human beings treat animals – but the form of Coetzee’s lectures is far from the typical Tanner Lectures, which are generally philosophical essays.  Coetzee’s lectures are fictional in form: two lectures within two lectures, which contain a critique of a more typical philosophical approach to the topic of animal rights.”  (“Introduction” by Amy Gutman, p. 3, The Lives of Animals, J. M. Coetzee.)

A story within a lecture within a story of a lecture, on ethics!  Read it.  You will not feel lectured to, but you will be engulfed and engaged in one of the thorniest ethical issues we human beings face.  I am an outrageous omnivore, inclined toward the carnivorous aspects thereof.  Mostly I think Vegans, as their appellation suggests, should have their own planet.   In The Lives of Animals, Coetzee engulfed me in an ethical disequilibrium I would have thought impossible.

On Thursday of last week I went into London both to attend Stoppard’s play as well as to visit the British Library.  The side visit to the BL was to see the most famous edition of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan in existence.  In 1651 Hobbes had commissioned a hand written, vellum paged copy of his great work as a present for Charles II (whom Hobbes had tutored in mathematics while both he and the King in exile were in Paris during the Cromwell Interregnum).   My little side venture had actually taken a great deal of advance work.  The librarian at Hertford College, Oxford (Hobbes’s college, sort of), recommended me to the Chief Curator of Documents at the British Library, Arnold Hunt, who after several exchanges of emails agreed that I could take a look at the book.  So in I went to London, admonished by a number of friends and family to avoid red phone kiosks as I crossed once more the same busy streets as on the day, a month before, of my cerebral encounter with the Leviathan of all phone boxes.

Arnold Hunt was so gracious.  The Presentation Copy of Leviathan is his favorite book in all the rare documents section of the British Library.  He literally handled it with kid gloves.  He let me see the places where Hobbes in his own hand had made a marginal note for the King, and in another place had struck through something he didn’t want the King to read.  Since Bush and Cheney and the hunt for Heffalumps and WMDs, the new word is “redacted” which I’m sure Hobbes would have neither used nor understood.  As I write this, there is a great political brouhaha going on about fraudulent expense reports of members of the British Parliament, and a “redacted copy” of MP’s expense reports.  It is still a stupid use of the word.

I will always wonder if Charles II read his old teacher’s magnum opus.  There is no record of where the old book was for over 100 years following Charles II’s death in 1685.  It turned up in a private collection in the 19th Century and was thence acquired by the British Library.  But more significant to this little tale of mine is the infatuation of Thomas Hobbes with mathematics, particularly geometry, and all the trouble he got into in trying to solve a difficult theorem, The Squaring of the Circle. Frankly, Hobbes was not much of a mathematician, though he did tutor the King in exile in maths, and probably thereby saved his own life.  A story we shall not go into (I know the reader is thankful) here.

My day in London ended with Linda (who already had seen the play three times before!) and I going to see Arcadia at The Duke of York Theatre in the West End.  And here is the amazing twist.  Arcadia is a story within a story enacted as a play.  It is also about chaos theory and patterns of coincidence and how time is of one piece, past and present woven in a single fabric of reality.  I cannot begin to do the play justice in this short essay.  So I’ll focus on only one or two small threads of the whole intricately woven fabric.  Stoppard has set his play within a mansion in rural England (Sidley Park), in a single grand room that looks out upon a large landscaped garden behind the great house.  Within this space two different times – the early 19th Century and the present — exist in tandem.  One is within the Newtonian world of mechanical objectivity; the other in a Quantum world, relative to its core.  Two extended families of characters move in and out of the room and garden beyond.  Lord Byron (a house guest who never appears) haunts both past and present.

Arcadia Playbill

Arcadia Playbill

Thomasina Coverly is a young girl (13 in Act One to17 in Act Two) who is a wonder of imagination and curiosity.   She is also, with her tutor Septimus Hodge, working on Fermat’s Last Theorem (i.e., there is no solution for “a” to the “n” plus “b” to the “n” equals “c” to the “n”,  where “a, b, and c” are whole numbers, for powers of “n” greater than 2).

The theorem is named for Pierre de Fermat, who was in the circle of mathematicians, scientists and philosophers (The so called Mersenne Circle or Salon) with whom Thomas Hobbes frequented during his exile in Paris (1641 to 1652).  Indeed, in Hobbes’s famous intellectual war with Rene Descartes and John Wallis, Fermat may have played a critical role in supporting Hobbes.  Hobbes, as noted above, was engaged in solving another mathematical quandary, the squaring of a circle, and made a mess of the proof, giving both Descartes and Wallis plenty of ammunition to attack not just his mathematics, but his creditability as a philosopher.

In Soppard’s play Thomasina Coverly did not solve Fermat’s last theorem, but like the wonderful French mathematician, Madame Sophie Germain (1776 to 1831, the same time period as the life of the fictional, Thomasina Coverly) provided a critical link in the chain of proof which would lead in 1995 to English mathematician Andrew Wiles solving the ancient riddle.  (I.e., in the infinity of all numbers, there is no solution to the equation above the power of two.)  In Arcadia Soppard implies that Thomasina made a similar advance to that of Germain in the quest for solving the most famous math problem of all time.

Arcadia also touched my own academic research in a second aspect.  One of the fascinating questions in the play is whether the poet Byron, while a guest in the Coverly mansion in 1809, murdered one of the other guests.   There has been much speculation over the years as to why Lord Byron so abruptly left England for Greece in 1809.  In the play, an overly enthusiastic academic, Professor Bernard Nightingale, while visiting Sidley Park in the 21st Century discovers fragmentary evidence that the reason for Byron’s hasty exit was to escape prosecution for murder by dueling.  In full academic zeal, Professor Nightingale, leaps to this astounding conclusion, only to be proven wrong and publically humiliated.

While I am working on nothing so dramatic as a murder mystery involving one of my favorite poets, I would really like to prove that Pierre de Fermat and Thomas Hobbes actually met and perhaps even were friends during Hobbes’s Paris years.  It would make the coincidence of the play and my visit to the British Library tie together so wonderfully!  Loving coincidence as I do, the temptation to jump to conclusions lurks.

I know these things: Hobbes and Pierre de Fermat were both part of Father Marin Mersenne’s Paris Circle; Samuel Fermat (Pierre’s son) visited Hobbes in London in 1657 and corresponded with Hobbes (Letter 127, Correspondence, Noel Malcolm); Pierre Gassendi, also a member of Mersenne’s Circle, was a close friend of Pierre de Fermat and a also close friend or at least associate of Hobbes during the Paris exile (Gassendi for instance, defended Hobbes against both Descartes and Wallis); the Mersenne Circle met weekly for a number of years.  How could they not have met?  Enough evidence, do you think, to state that Pierre de Fermat and Thomas Hobbes knew each other and had actually met, thus completing the serendipitous circle of this essay?

I will probably never have such fun as this again.  The sabbatical snake has eaten its own tail and is vanishing into itself.  I am sad to see it gone.  But . . . life is more than a coincidence; it is a miracle.  Some call the coincidence God.  Some don’t.  I’m on sabbatical.  Hobbes was agnostic.

Home Towns

Home Towns

A Visit to Malmesbury

John Aubrey, a truly curious person but nonetheless an admirer and friend of Thomas Hobbes, wrote Hobbes’s first biography.  Aubrey was the definition of a dilettante; he dabbled in everything and concentrated on nothing.  He loved to drop names, indeed in Brief Lives (a gossipy, first person collection of short biographies of the rich and famous in England and Europe in the 17th Century) he does precisely that. Brief Lives presents little epitomises of the likes of Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, Rene Descartes, Christopher Wren, Sir Walter Raleigh, Edmund Halley, Ben Johnson, and even William Shakespeare.   And, of course, Hobbes.

Like everything else Aubrey did, the book was never completed nor was it published in his lifetime.  Wonderfully, it was found among his chaotic collection papers, and after a great deal of editing and reediting over the years has been published numerous times.  There is even a play based on the book.  Aubrey loved framing lives in hyperbole, and then cuddling up next to them, but with Hobbes this was a problem.  Here’s how the biography begins:

The writers of the lives of the ancient philosophers used to, in the first place to speak of their lineage; and they tell us that in process of time several illustrious great families accounted it their glory to be branched from such or such a wise man.  Why now should that method be omitted in this little history of our Malmesbury philosopher?  Who though but of plebeian descent, his renown has and will give brightness to his name and family which hereafter may arise glorious and flourish in riches and may justly take in an honour to be of kin to this worthy person, so famous, for his learning, both at home and abroad.

I went to see what Thomas Hobbes’s hometown looked like in the Twenty First Century.  He was born in Malmesbury in 1588 – 421 years ago.  His house is gone.  The church his father preached at is gone.  But the old town is surprisingly charming.  It is the oldest borough (from 880 AD a self governing unit of local government) in England.  I went first to the local museum to inquire of how to find Hobbes’s house.  The high school kid at the counter had never heard of Hobbes.   Oh my.  He went and fetched the curator, who showed me around the museum, including a bronze of the old philosopher, and then aimed me toward where he thought the house use to be.  He warned me that near the spot where Hobbes was born someone had named their stone cottage “Hobbes Cottage” but that the actual house Hobbes was born in was torn down long ago.

Bust of Hobbes

Bust of Hobbes

I also had my copy of Brief Lives with me, and tried without success to understand Aubrey’s directions to Hobbes’s birthplace:

Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, philosopher, was born at his father’s house in Westport, being that extreme house that points into or faces, the Horse-Fair; the farthest house on the left hand as you go to Tedbury, leaving the church on your right.  To prevent mistakes, and that hereafter may rise no doubt what house was famous for this famous man’s birth, I do here testify that in April 1659, his brother Edmund went with me into this house, and into the chamber where he was born.  Now things begin to be antiquated, and I have heard some guess it might be at the house where his brother Edmund lived and died.  But this is so, as I here deliver it.  This house was given by Thomas, the vicar (Hobbes’s father) to his daughter, whose daughter or granddaughter possessed it when I was there.  It is a firm house, stone-built, and tiled, of one room (besides the buttery, or the like, within) below, and two chambers above.  It was in the innermost where he first drew breath.

But it is gone.  I decided that “Hobbes Cottage” was close enough for me to the manger of his birth, and besides I had forgotten the gold, frankincense and myrrh.


A quaint confusion about the place of Hobbes birth is the distinction between the boundaries of a “parish” and that of the borough.  Hobbes’s father served the parish of Westport as vicar until his drinking and fighting got him fired.  Their home was just inside the parish boundary on the road leading north out of Malmesbury toward Tedbury.  Some later biographers say Hobbes was born in Westport, others that he was born in Malmesbury.  Both are correct.

Hobbes made almost no reference to his hometown in his letters or books.  When he left Malmesbury as 15 for college at Oxford, he basically left for good.  He did come back in the summer of 1634, and looked up his old teacher Robert Latimer, who was then the teacher for none other than the young John Aubrey.  If there is anything Hobbes gained from the place of his birth, it was an excellent education.  Latimer was apparently an extraordinary teacher, particularly of Greek and Latin, both of which Hobbes was proficient in before entering Magdalene Hall, Oxford.

Of Hobbes’s homecoming in 1634 Aubrey writes:

I remember it was in venison season (July or August).  Mr. T. H. came into his native country to visit his friends, and amongst others he came then to see his old schoolmaster, Mr. Robert Latimer, at Leigh Delmere, where I was then in school in the church, newly entered in my grammar by him: here was the first place and time that ever I had the honour to see this worthy, learned man, who was then pleased to take notice of me, and the next day visited my relations.  He was a very proper man, brisk, and in very good habit.  His hair was then quite black.  He stayed at Malmesbury and in the neighbourhood a week or better; ‘twas the last time that ever he was in Wiltshire.

Poking around Malmesbury I couldn’t help but reflect on my own hometown, Lumberton, North Carolina.   Malmesbury is high on a hill with rivers on both sides.  Lumberton is on a slight elevation above surrounding swamps and the Lumbee River.   Both are truly “out of the way” places.  The only serious book ever written about Lumberton is titled “Like No Place Else on Earth.”  Great title.  Great book.  Two factors got T. H. out of Malmesbury: his uncle (who paid for his Oxford education) and his teacher.  I was similarly lucky to have a family and some teachers who helped set me free as well.   The world is so much bigger than the Malmesbury’s and the Lumberton’s, and lucky are we when freed to that larger reality.

Walking around a garden and a church grave yard I thought about Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (a fantastic English teacher of mine in Lumberton, Miss Hamilton, had required we memorize parts of this poem):

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid

Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;

Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,

Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page,

Rich with the spoils of time, did ne’er unroll;

Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,

And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene

The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,

And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Hobbes’s life is the living disproof of Gray’s thesis that geography is destiny.  And by leaving home in body or in mind, we each are presented with that eternal option – not flight or fight – but of growing or dying.  Hobbes was not to be found in Malmesbury.  He had left centuries ago.  And his writings on the equality of human beings; the necessity of peace; the fundamental realities of human association have traveled as well, into the political discourse of human life and human survival.  Malmesbury is from nowhere.  Hobbes is infused into human discourse everywhere.

I should never have compared Malmesbury in Wiltshire with Lumberton in North Carolina, but both do have really good bar-b-que.  Here’s a picture of the Q place in Malmesbury, The Whole Hog.  Made me feel right at home.

The Whole Hog, Malmesbury

The Whole Hog, Malmesbury

Turning Around

Turning Around 

A favorite sailing book of mine is Pete Goss’s  Close to the Wind.  It is the story of the famous British round the world racer’s valiant rescue of a competitor in the Vendee Globe race of 1996.  Hearing that he was the closest boat to Raphael Dinelli, a French sailor whose boat has capsized off Cape Horn, Goss turned his own boat around and into hurricane force winds of the Southern Ocean and successfully rescued Dinelli.  Goss rightly received both the Order of the British Empire from his Queen, and the Legion d’Honneur from the President of France.

My focus, however, is not on the awards ceremonies, but on those first moments when Goss considered what to do.  He wanted to win the race.  He had sponsors with real investments in his campaign.  But greater than either of these considerations, he had just sailed through that awful storm, eighty knots winds and thirty foot seas, and was almost in the clear . . . and now he was considering turning back.  The pain and nausea of going into such a maelstrom is almost beyond imagining.  Goss had plenty of good reasons to press on and hope another boat or plane could reach Dinelli.  Yet he turned back and sailed close to the wind for two damnable days of bone cold winds and chilling fear.   I have always wanted to think, after many miles on the open ocean and some storm stories of my own, that I could make Goss’s choice of turning back into the wind.  But I just don’t know.

It is one thing to go forward to something — a goal, a work completed, a homecoming – it is another thing all together to chose to turn back against the winds of progress and success, to recover something that should not be left behind or lost.  We are such “damn the torpedoes full steam ahead” beings.

So I was pedaling like crazy along the Thames bike path out of Reading making really good time towards Windsor Castle and a night of food and rest, if not in the Castle with the Royal Family, at least somewhere close by.  I had just stopped for a pint and a stuffed spud at a local pub.  Yum!  And now I was about 20 minutes further along approaching the Chilterns, those beautiful rolling hills between Oxford and London.  I decided to stop and take a picture of the approaching landscape.  And damnit! I had left my camera at the pub.  A dozen excuses came to mind for not turning back – I’ll call them later to send the camera, the camera didn’t cost that much anyway, I’ll loose an hour if I turn about, somebody’s probably stolen it by now anyway — then I turned around and went back.  Forty minutes later I was back where I was before turning around.  But obsessively, all the way to Windsor I chewed on the 60 minutes I had lost to turning around.  The Queen who was in residence – her flag was flying on the high round tower of the ancient fortress — did not confer the Order of the Empire on me.  Boo, MBE, sounds good to me, oh well.  Un-knighted, I took the train home to Oxford after a lovely Sunday longing around Eaton and Windsor. 

On Monday I biked (ouch legs!) into my college to print out some of my recent work on the book.  I printed out a copy of the new Introduction, then clicked to save that file and open my almost completed Chapter 3.  Unfortunately, I somehow over-wrote the Chapter 3 file with the new Introduction.  And the process begins again.  Denial is such a dependable first emotion.  Two days of work to repeat.  Two days lost when I only have 27 days left.  Two days of writing and rewriting, postponed by opening every damn folder and file for the fortieth time just in the hope that somehow I hadn’t been as stupid as I know I had.  And ultimately the decision to turn around.  Gathering my notes, I started writing again.

But here’s the weird thing . . . no matter how well I may do this second go at Chapter 3, I know it will never be as perfect and brilliant as what first I conceived.  Just out of my memory is prose that would make Hemmingway weep — lost, lost to all eternity!  (Just more excuses for not even trying to come about!)  Actually, it probably needed rewriting; but my mind will not accept this sagacious judgment.  I had just written the most insightful essay on Social Contract theory since Hobbes pinned Chapter XVII of The Leviathan 350 years ago.  And that electronic monster – The Cyber Beast, The Digital Dog, whoever — ate it!

I recall that one of my favorite professors at Davidson College fifty years ago had discovered a very insightful thing about turning around.  Dr. Workman’s study in experimental psychology was about rats and how they learn mazes.  What he discovered was pretty simple, but profound.  Rats only improve in the time it takes them to go through a maze if the cul ‘d sacs are narrow and therefore requiring them to learn the little trick of standing up and turning around at each dead end.  Dr. Workman enlarged the dead ends of the maze, and the rats didn’t improve at all.  They just ran around until, sooner or later, they found their cheese. 

QED: If you don’t learn to turn around, you will not improve.  Still sucks.

A Note about Narrative Style

A note about the use of narrative in this book: 

The reader is already aware that I am fond of telling stories.  Indeed you will discover as you go along that I use narrative form quite often, and in some cases (for instance Chapter 3) reference a fully developed story from my childhood (actually written for my grandchildren) to help explain the concept of “authorization” in social contract theory.  I hope this is not off putting.  My own conviction is that if one cannot reduce ideas to stories, one doesn’t actually understand the idea him/herself.

While working on this book I attended The John Locke Lectures put on by the Philosophy Department of Oxford University.  The Locke Lectures are arguably the most distinguished forum for philosophy in the world.  John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Christine Korsgaard and others of similar stature have delivered these lectures over the years.  This year’s Lock lecturer was T. M. Scanlon of Harvard University.  I have long admired Scanlon’s work.  His book What We Owe to Each Other (Belcamp Press, Harvard 1998), while intensely difficult reading, is a major contribution to the field of ethics.  But in his lectures this year at Oxford, Scanlon was so dense and so obtuse as to leave not just me (that would be too simple an achievement) but most of his highly sophisticated, erudite audience either asleep or befuddled or both.  Without metaphor, without narrative, almost (he once gave an example using a sharp knife to illustrate his point) without even the simplest of application, he read (without looking up) line by line by line from a written text.

Ethics is a branch of philosophy, of course, but it is also fundamentally emotive, human and personal in nature.  Ethics is about meaning and life and social engagement.  Now I understand Scanlon is not a “narrative ethicists,” (most would categorize him as a contractarian) but he is a human being who writes and lectures about ethics.   And I would argue, therefore owes (ala, the title of his great book on ethics) both himself and his audience some relief from abstraction, some grounding in the richness of human application.  For five weeks in May 2009 no such relief was forth coming.  And it was from this experience I decided to put some narrative foundation under this work of mine.  Seawell’s first law was framed: If you cannot make ethical theories into stories you most likely do not know what you are talking about yourself, but most assuredly nobody else will.

Not far from the lecture hall in Oxford where T. M Scanlon was reading his Locke lectures this month, is the site of Albert Einstein’s famous lecture on the General Theory of Relativity, delivered at Oxford in 1915.  Almost a century later, the General Theory is still difficult going for even the top physicists in the world, not to mention mathematically challenged persons like myself.  But Einstein’s genius was grounded in an intellectual humility, and he spent a lifetime explicating and providing metaphor for one of the most difficult concepts the human intellect has ever grappled with.  And by so doing changed our understanding of fundamental physical reality forever.   Surely we ethicists owe the human enterprise nothing less.

I love old un-loveable T. Hobbes because as brilliant as he was, he meticulously provided definitions for his basic concepts in clear simple English (or Latin!) and never minded stooping to metaphor and story to communicate the richness of his meaning. And he targeted his grandest works of political and ethical theory not at scholars but at society as a whole.  And so, following Hobbes, I will try to write simply, provide clear definitions and from time to time give narrative diversion into the muck and mire of quite human experiences, examples and narratives.  This happens to be how ethics has been done at its best for going on three thousand years, and I say if it was good enough for Socrates of Athens and Jesus of Nazareth, it’s good enough for me.  Enjoy.

The Case of the Red London Phone Box

The Case of the Red Phone Box

Red London Phone Box

Red London Phone Box


Or, a not so funny thing happened on the way to the British Library.

This past Saturday I was in London to visit with an old friend, Linda McFadden, and to go to a play at the Royal National Theatre.  It was such a beautiful day.  We went down to Canary Warf on the Thames and took the high speed ferry up river to the Victoria Embankment landing.  The trip was a lot like being on board a time machine watching history flow past as near the speed of light we inched through the centuries – talking of the Great Fire of London, the numerous beheadings at the Tower, the grand processions across Tower Bridge, the weirdness of London Bridge being in Arizona and Cleopatra’s Needle being in London, how the stern-faced genius Sir Isaac Newton must have  looked barging down the river to demand data from the recalcitrant Royal Astronomer at Greenwich, all from the starkly high teched grand salon of a 21st Century, jet powered ferryboat.  Fun stuff!

At Embankment we disembarked and headed to the tube station, Oyster Cards at the ready, and zipped away on the Northern Line to the Tottenham Court Road station.  I’m feeling like such a London sophisticate! Looking for a bookstore near the British Library, Linda and I ambled along New Oxford Street amid the bump and jostle of shoppers and gawkers on this sunny spring weekend.  At Bloomsbury Street we crossed over and headed toward the British Museum/Library.  And then I tripped.  It was definitely not like “in slow motion.”  It was like out of nowhere a big red London Phone Kiosk hit me squarely on the top of the head with all its force. (Maybe it was upset that a Yank was acting like some cocky Londoner!) Inside my head a sound went off like the white-yellow light of the burst of a great star going nova.  I went down.

I was on the sidewalk, head between my knees and bleeding profusely.  I remember how near the same color my fresh blood was to the color of the phone box.  Linda must have been waving for help, because suddenly all sorts of people were stopping and helping.  I just sat there on the sidewalk disoriented and bleeding all over everything.

I know we all think of big cities as being heartless walk-on-by kinda places, but not today.  A British couple with two babies in a double stroller stopped immediately, broke out handy wipes, clean diapers, water . . . another woman ran to the nearby Boots Pharmacy and got gauze, and yet another woman called an ambulance.  It looked worse than it was . . . but what a mess I made. Thank goodness those phone booths are bright blood red!  

Anyway the EMT guys got there quickly, tried (without much success) to check the bleeding with pressure bandages and roared away to St Mary’s Hospital (near Paddington Station). Six hours and 22 stitches later, with a bandage that looks like I might have been exalted to the status of Cardinal or perhaps Grand Cyclops of the KKK, I was discharged.  Linda walked me to Paddington, found me a Paddington Bear Hat to cover my bandages (I looked way stupid!) and sent me off on the Oxford train.  An hour later I arrived, and was able to walk to Folly Bridge without further disfugalty.

The doctor said I’d be sore for a few days (got that right) and for me to take it easy.  He (and two other MDs) checked really well to make sure there was no serious damage to bone or brain . . . and though he couldn’t quite understand why there wasn’t, pronounced me fit to leave under my own steam.  I do have a little brochure he gave me that suggests I may become disoriented and tired, and perhaps a little forgetful for the next few days. Since I have been in much this condition for the past 20 years, I’m not too worried about that.  I’m especially encouraged however that the brochure goes on to say, “these symptoms should completely disappear within a week.”  Being disoriented, tired, forgetful and stupid is reversible! 

So OK, now you know the gory story.  Here’s what.  I’m a teacher.  I use any and everything that happens to whatever pedagogical benefit seems appropriate.  Take this traumatic experience, for example . . .

In the days following the accident, I have received a great deal of sympathy from friends here and at home, and no little advice.  A recurring theme, particularly among British friends, is that I should sue London (actually the borough of Holborn) because one reason I fell was a broken place in the sidewalk into which I stepped just before the Phone Kiosk hit me.  Two particularly dear friends have gone on at length about how stupid I would be not to bring a law suit.  One has suggested she might move and live with me in Malaga in the villa that I would buy with the proceeds of the judgment.  This is not an unappealing offer!

Let me lay out the facts as I know them of this case . . . and ask you faithful reader to give me your best legal and ethical advice.

On a clear sunny day in London I was walking with a friend along Bloomsbury Street just north of its intersection with New Oxford Street.  The friend was slightly ahead of me and on my left.  We were chatting.  I was wearing a small back pack with books and personal articles inside; it was fairly heavy (maybe twenty pounds).  I was also wearing some new shoes I’d purchased three weeks before that are intended to relieve a problem I’m having with my left foot.  The shoes come with a warning that it may take a few weeks to learn to walk correctly in them, and on several occasions I have stumbled when the rocker shaped sole of one or the other shoe strikes the pavement unexpectedly as my leg swings forward.  Just before I fell I stepped into a slight depression (two or three inches deep) where the sidewalk was being repaired and just in front of a red phone kiosk.  I struck the phone kiosk with the top front of my head causing severe pain, extensive lacerations in my scalp and copious bleeding.  I was taken by ambulance to St. Mary’s Hospital near Paddington Station.  I was treated in St. Mary’s A&E and after the wound was cleansed, closed with sutures and bandaged (about six hours) released.

There are a number of witnesses to some or all of these events including my friend Linda who is an ordained Protestant minister, as well as the four people who stopped and offered assistance, the two ambulance drivers, and the doctors and nurse of St. Mary’s Hospital. 

Here are my own observations about all this.  I just don’t know whether the shoes played any part in my stumbling, but I’m sure they didn’t help.  The sidewalk under repair clearly contributed to my stumbling.  I was talking and looking forward towards Linda and never saw the broken place in the sidewalk. There were no signs or warnings about the sidewalk repair.  The book bag helped propel me forward more quickly than I anticipated, and was a part of why I didn’t “catch myself” before butting into the phone box. While I was in one hell of a lot of pain, there seems to be no long term effect of the accident.  Linda and I did not get to the play, but we had only 20 pounds invested in the tickets.  In this most civilized of countries there was no charge to me for any of the medical services I received.  Finally, my friends tell me that the borough government is a very advantageous defendant, and that judges and juries are fond of siding with plaintiffs who were arguably harmed by the negligence of local governments.

So, what would you do?  I’m not asking you to be my lawyer (solicitor or barrister) but if you were on a jury and had these facts in front of you, would you decide in my favor in the case of Boo vs. London Phone Box?  But maybe more importantly, what should I do?  What ethical considerations should I take into account?  What ethical approach would you recommend for dealing with all of this?  What would be best for the greater good?  What are my duties to truth/justice, to myself, to my family, to this most civil of societies, to the friend who wants to move to Malaga?  (Ok forget her!)

And just to make this more interesting, what if one day (before the statute of limitations has run) some really serious problems related to the accident crop up?  Consider the same questions as above.

W B Yeats at Garsington

The Irish poet and Nobel laureate, W. B. Yeats, died in January 1939.  He and I shared only 18 months as contemporaries.  But Yeats was alive this weekend at an old haunt of his, Garsington Manor.  A couple of weeks ago I had come across this invitation to:

An evening of poetry and prose with Irish music and dance . . .

WB Yeats at Garsington, Friday May 1, 7:30 pm at The Great Barn,

Garsington Manor, Garsington, Oxford.

I’m still not sure how it ended up in my mail slot at the College, but I took it personally.

Garsington was where Phillip Morrell and wife, Lady Ottoline, held court in the early 20th Century with the likes of D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and particularly Yeats and his wife George.  The town of Garsington and the manor are about 10 miles outside Oxford.  I think Yeats would have enjoyed how magic the readers, Irish dancers, and musicians made the evening . . . Fairies! (Yeats believed in Fairies, but I don’t.)  Before the sun set I walked in the flower gardens of the estate and could see why Yeats with his weird sense of the occult loved coming to Garsington.

The production was in the “Great Barn” and wove together Yeats poems, letters, essays with Irish songs and melodies. There was a group of eight musicians — a fiddle, two flutes, three guitars, a penny whistle and an accordion; two unbelievably beautiful green eyed, blond haired, big boobed Irish dancers, and maybe five readers (all professional actors from the Oxford Playhouse).  The barn was packed — maybe three or four hundred — and the acoustics perfect.  I can’t remember ever having been so lost in anything.  The reading of “Sailing to Byzantium” (see blow) was surrounded with a flute tune (She’s Like the Swallow) and the haunting, traditional Irish song “May Morning Dew.”  Cliche:  I was carried away . . . but what else is “Sailing to Byzantium” supposed to do?  

I had not known of Yeats’ life long obsession for Maud Gonne (the beautiful Irish Republican radical) . . . just the failure of my education, I’m sure . . . but that heart-sick thing played out unforgettably this night in the reading of their letters accompanied by a soft Irish pipe in the background!  Holy St. Patrick, I was in tears.  Listen to what he wrote when he first met Maud:

I had never thought to see in a living woman so great beauty.

It belonged to famous pictures, to poetry, to some legendary past,

A complexion like the blossom of apples, and yet face and body

had the beauty of lineaments which Blake calls the highest beauty

because it changes least from youth to age, and a stature so great

that she seemed a divine race.

And her name!  Maybe there are Fairies after all.  To long for someone so beautiful and whose name is like her love, Gonne! Of course, I am the first one to make such a comment! Forgive me sophisticates of Yeats’ works and biography.  Think back, though, you-in-the-know, to your first reaction to this nominal, mystical, coincidental wonder. Palpably Yeats was there and, yes, God forgive me, she was gone. 

Maud Gonne

Maud Gonne (I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.)

In rejecting one of Yeats’ three proposals of marriage, Maud said she did not want to deprive Ireland of its great poet simply so she could have a husband!  Sadly she believed that if they married Yeats would lose his passion for his work.  Yuck!  He sure never lost his passion for her, right winged Irish Nationalist and all. Gonne, after having two children with a right-wing Irish politician (Lucien Millevoye), married another radical, Captain John MacBride, who was executed by the British for sedition following the Easter Rising in 1916.  Only the Irish could manufacture such magnificent pathos.  Perhaps it’s the whiskey. 

It was dark outside the barn when the applause died and the musicians, dancers and readers along with the audience ambled away.  I was aware, standing waiting with a friend for a cab to arrive, that tonight I had met the great man.  He was at Garsington, not so much in the mystical sense he might have proposed, but in reality.  As Virginia Woolf herself an old haunt of Garsington surmised, we are only stories, after all, just physical apparatuses – synapses, nerves, impulses, chemistries — maintaining the narratives necessary to make sense of things that happen.  Meeting and knowing anyone is simply becoming a part of his or her story.  And tonight at Garsington I actually met Yeats . . . sailing to Byzantium.







Sailing To Byzantium

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.     

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me 
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come. 

William Butler Yeats 

A Visit with Noel Malcolm

A Visit with Noel Malcolm

One of the deep joys of being a part of Oxford University is having access to some of the finest scholars on the planet. In the field of Hobbesian scholarship there is no one more respected than Professor Noel Malcolm of All Souls College. I first met Malcolm through his book Aspects of Hobbes (Oxford University Press, 2002) a series of 14 essays ranging in topics from the minutest detail of the design and meaning of The Leviathan’s iconic title page to the grand perspective of Hobbes’s theory of international relations. Since my own work on this sabbatical is focused on this latter issue – the international implications of Hobbes’s Social Contract theory – I was obviously drawn to Noel Malcolm. But I had no idea what an amazing range of depth and perspective he has personally contributed to the understanding of Thomas Hobbes, until I began seriously to read in the field.

On finishing my second reading of Chapter 13 (“Hobbes’s Theory of International Relations”) of Aspects, and having underlined more of the text than not, and written marginal notes on almost every page, my first reaction was to go back to the flat, pack up and return to Denver. As we say back home, put a fork in it, it’s done! But then I was having too much fun to leave, even if I now knew how far over my head I was in this pretentious undertaking of mine. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10) Noel Malcolm is the Lord of this manor.

In 1997 Malcolm completed and published the second of his two volume work on Thomas Hobbes’s correspondence. Every extant letter that Hobbes wrote and every significant letter Hobbes received in his 91 year lifetime is catalogued, annotated and preserved. And in the case of Hobbes this sort of laborious scholarship was absolutely critical, because much of the old philosopher’s papers have been lost or, by Hobbes himself, destroyed. A sad chapter in Hobbes later years was his burning many of his unpublished papers out of fear of arrest and trial for heresy. The contribution of Noel Malcolm in cataloging and publishing these original sources is monumental.

Quentin Skinner in The New York Review of Books put a fine point on the value of Dr. Malcolm’s work on the correspondence of Hobbes:

“Superb….The state of our knowledge has suddenly been transformed….We must be grateful not merely for the letters that remain but for the truly spectacular job that Dr. Malcolm has done in making them available. The concept of definitive scholarship has been made to seem almost paradoxical in these post-modern days. But research of the quality displayed in these volumes reminds us that the ideal is by no means wholly out of reach.”

With no little trepidation I decided to contact Noel Malcolm and ask if we could visit briefly. My email got an immediate reply:

Dear Dr Seawell,
Thank you for your message. Yes, I’d be happy to talk about Hobbes; would you be able to come to tea in All Souls at 4 pm on either Thursday or Friday of this week?

Yours sincerely,

Noel Malcolm

March 24.2009

All Souls College is a special place. Founded in 1438, it is a college without students! But it has a magnificent endowment, an extensive library, commodious buildings and unparalleled faculty. My old boss and friend. Gary Hart, is a fellow of All Souls. I was proud just to get past the porter at the college lodge (Porters are somewhat akin trolls at ancient bridges. The Lodge is the little security office at the entry to each college in Oxford.) and meet Professor Malcolm.

What a gracious person! A thin, bespectacled gentleman (central casting did an excellent job!), Noel Malcolm ushered me along to a wood-paneled-bookcase-lined-leather-chairs-in-abundance faculty room where tea was in process. For the next hour and fifteen minutes we just talked. He shared with me a small breakthrough in the work he is doing for a new publication of The Leviathan. Turns out that the word “leviathan” was used early in the 16th Century – well before Hobbes’s birth in 1588 – for the organizing principle of government or community. So it wasn’t just a beast of an idea that Hobbes had, it was also a concept already current having to do with those elements which hold human community together.

I got to ask a lot of questions. One of the least important, but most fun, was to find out if Malcolm knew the truth or not of the rumor that Thomas Hobbes (who never married) had an illegitimate daughter. A. P. Martinich in his Routledge Philosophers Series book, Hobbes, writes, “There’s no reason to doubt that Hobbes had a daughter, whom he referred to as the joy of his youth.” (Hobbes, A. P. Martinich, Routledge, 2005,  p. 8).  Well, there’s every reason in the world to doubt this as far as Noel Malcolm is concerned! Professor Malcolm veritably bristled when I brought the matter up. “A scurrilous rumor that was used against Hobbes by his enemies during his life time. Not one shred of evidence to support it!” I actually felt badly about having dared to raise the question. Three hundred and thirty years after Hobbes death and I was perpetrating the same old invidious political gossip!

Malcolm proceeded to tell a wonderful story about how the rumor might have started. A little girl, the daughter of a musical instrument tuner, came to the manor where Hobbes was living following his return from Paris in 1651. The young child apparently traveled with her dad as he went about the countryside tuning harpsichords and such, and while at Hobbes’s residence her father had died. The servants at the place adopted the little girl, and Hobbes took great delight in her. He would in the end make provision for her in his will. And it may be that her inclusion in the will, supported some scholars’ assumptions (ala Martinich above) that the child was his illegitimate daughter.

I also talked to Noel Malcolm about the main thesis of my work on Hobbes, i.e. that we enter the 21st Century in terms of international politics without a functional social contract and that outside the jurisdiction of nation-states exists nothing less than the state of nature Hobbes so famously described. I asked if Malcolm knew of anyone developing a parallel between the potential of environmental collapse (the death of the species) with Hobbes’s foundational theory of human nature – i.e. the fragility of individual human life is the fundamental reason behind the necessity of social contract development. To my great surprise, he simply said he did not, and that he wanted to think more about the legitimacy of the extension and application of Hobbes’s social contract theory that I was making. Whew!

The ancient college room had emptied of faculty. I had taken way longer than I had advertised. But Noel Malcolm seemed unperturbed, in fact he seemed to have enjoyed helping a bumbling Yank find his way through the labyrinth of 17th Century British history, biography and philosophy. In his responsive and gracious manner Noel Malcolm defined for me the meaning of collegial.

Of Death, Taxes, Time and Thomas Hobbes

Of Death, Taxes, Time and Thomas Hobbes

Comes now the time to pay our taxes.  April 15 is also the birthday of Thomas Hobbes.  This year the old philosopher of Malmesbury would be 421.  However, Hobbes himself celebrated his birthday each year while in England, at least, on April 5.  And therein is a problem of historic notation as thorny as taxes and mysterious as time itself. 

The mystery of time has to do with the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar (Which superseded the Julian Calendar that having gotten out of phase because of an over abundance of leap years.)  In much of Europe the change to the Gregorian Calendar came in 1582, but not in England.  As with the recent rejection of the Euro as the coin of the realm, the UK, and its colonies (US, Canada, etc.) would stay on the old and decaying Julian Calendar for another 170 years.  In 1752 Great Britain would finally, by act of Parliament, adopt the Gregorian framework for recording dates.  Because Thomas Hobbes both corresponded with many people on the Continent and traveled there several times as well, when what actually happened gets truly confusing.  Add to the Julian/Gregorian matter the fact that Britain during Hobbes’s lifetime celebrated New Years on March 25 rather than January 1 and the boggle gets even bogglier.

During Hobbes life the differential between Julian and Gregorian dating was 10 days, thus in Malmesbury it was April 5, 1588, when the baby Tommy Hobbes was born.  In Spain, whose Armada was at the moment of Hobbes birth waiting to attack England, it was already April 15.  And in both countries the year was 1588 AD. (The year predicted by theologians to be the end of the world.)  But consider for a moment if Hobbes had been born just two weeks earlier, i.e. March 22.  Then the year in England would have been 1587 and in Spain (ditto France, Italy, Holland, etc.) 1588.  It’s enough to make one reconsider the study of history!

The convention in England during the 17th Century was to use the Gregorian Calendar when writing to colleagues in Europe, and when traveling there to date events in Gregorian reference, but when traveling there and writing home Hobbes and his contemporaries dated their correspondence with Julian numbering.   I hope the reader is following this carefully.

Back to taxes.  This year on April 15, 2009, we in the US will be paying our taxes for income earned during the calendar (Gregorian) year of 2008.  You may recall that up until 1954 tax filing in the US was actually not on April 15 but on March 15, ominous for its ides and the death of Julius Caesar, who if there is any justice should have had his death recorded under the calendar named for him, but didn’t.  So if taxes were due on March 15 of this year, under the British recording of the new year it would still be 2008, so I assume we would be paying 2007 taxes.  And since I’ve already paid those taxes I don’t owe any taxes this year at all. 

Therefore, even though Thomas Hobbes based his Social Contract theory on the foundational reality of death, and even though under the Gregorian Calendar (now used throughout the world for the secular dating of events), April 15 is Hobbes birthday . . . taxes are not as inevitable as advertised. 

NB: The author assumes no liability for penalties or interest incurred by those US citizens, who relying upon this essay, fail to file their taxes on Wednesday, April 15, 2009.