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Time Between the Terms

It is interterm at Oxford University and for the past ten days I’ve been enjoying the company of my sister, Terrell Tracy, and daughter, Scottie Seawell.  We’ve done a lot of sight seeing around old Oxford; traveled up to the Western Isles of Scotland, and attended The Oxford Literary Festival.  Here is a link to a blog we kept, which substitutes nicely for my ever week or so ramblings in Taming the Beast.


Back to Basics

Editorial note: This brief essay is an answer to some of my wonderful friends who have inquired how a nice liberal boy like me could be involved with a conservative, grumpy old fart like Thomas Hobbes.  The crux of the essay will appear in Chapter 2 of the finished book. 

Foundationalism and Thomas Hobbes

At Bottom, What Is It All About?

Thomas Hobbes is often called a “foundationalist philosopher.”  His life’s work in a time of chaotic social and political turmoil (17th Century Britain) was to establish the ground work (theoretical foundations) for what he called the Social Contract-the conditions of security or peace within which human life might flourish.  In our own period of history it is again critical, given the collapse of the entire institutional framework of international law and governance framed in the last century, to revive foundational thinking and analysis. A simple, though I hope not simplistic, way to understand different philosophical, theological or ethical foundations is by looking at each through the perspective of one of the three most basic questions language can pose: What, How and Why.

The foundation of Thomas Hobbes’s political philosophy is the answer to the what. What, Hobbes asks, is the most basic reality shared by all human beings?  What is a commonality of being that is in no way subjective, no way a construct of our imagining or speculation or rhetoric or beliefs? He answers that it is life.  This common element is sensed – made palpable to us – in fear, in the knowledge that our life is fragile and can easily be lost.  We are equal, Hobbes believed, because we can equally easily kill the other and the other, us.  Sadly we humans have been demonstrating that fact repeatedly in a tragic history of murder, war and genocide stretching back to the very origins of our species.  The beautifully sad novel and movie, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in its very title captures Hobbes’s foundational assumption.  We may differ on issues of religion, concepts of fundamental political rights, distinctions made based on race, age, gender, nationality, economic status, etc. but one reality trumps all others as most basic – we are all alive and we all will die, and we all fear – or should fear– that inevitability.

The foundations of other public philosophies – e.g. David Hume, Adam Smith or Karl Marx – are grounded in the answer to the second interrogative, how.  How is material life best maintained? How is human welfare positively affected?  This is the instrumental question. In a world of limited resources and escalating population, scarcity is a reality; no one should be caviler about the material provisions of sustenance.  Both Capitalists and Communists would agree that property and how it is distributed are foundational to human survival.  Of course, after this brief agreement the two grand economic theories part company but each maintains that in resolving issues of ownership and distribution of material goods, we are dealing with quite fundamental realities.

For many of us it is not adequate just to be alive, or for that matter to be materially satisfied. We are more concerned with the last question, why.  Why live? Why work? Why acquire wealth?  Why contend politically to structure governments and economies one way or another?  What’s the point of it all?  And to many philosophers and almost all theologians those whys are the most fundamental of all questions.  Immanuel Kant believed at bottom it was freedom that defined the nature of human being best; freedom that grounded the ethical connection of persons to each other and made life meaningful.  Hear the echoes of the American patriot Patrick Henry (are you listening Thomas Hobbes?): “Give me liberty or give me death!” 

Classically, the Greeks took on the whys of foundational reality two thousand years before western culture’s Enlightenment.  For Socrates, the ever questioning foundationalist (“The unexamined life is not worth living.”), the answer was Truth (or perhaps Truth and Beauty).  For Aristotle, the why was answered with the single Greek word “eudemonia,” i.e. fulfillment or happiness; happiness was the end that was a means to nothing else.  Eastern religions and philosophies deserve far more than this passing reference. Buddhism, for instance, in an intricately developed practice and belief called nirvana answers the why, not with words, but with the achievement of a state of being free from human necessity and desire. Islam, the faith of nearly 2 billion people on this planet, answers the why with a belief in a heavenly state of bliss achieved beyond this life in a perfect and ecstatic awareness of God.  

In the U. S. Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson captures a bit of all of these notions with the foundational phrasing, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable (foundational) Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” For the firm of Marx, Smith and Hume it must be noted that while “property” does not appear in the grand trinity of “unalienable rights” that made it into the Declaration, this specific issue was debated, the word put in and taken out, only to reemerge in the Bill of Rights (i.e., in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the so called “taking clause”),  “No person shall . . .be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

I would not want to suggest that these foundational questions and answers exhaust the subject.  The romantic soul answers the “why” with love or affection.  The spiritual soul might answer the question of why with “faith”, e.g. Martin Luther, “We are saved by grace through faith alone.”  Or again, a person of faith might answer the “why” with a notion of salvation or heaven. For some, the human family itself is the foundation of value and the context for ethical reference. 

Coming back to Hobbes, as noted, the old boy’s foundational work was to establish the grounds or conditions for creating what he called a Social Contract, basically the political conditions of security (peace) within which human life might flourish.  If one considers the extraordinary barriers to achieving such social agreements that the economic, political, religious and emotional differences described above present, one might at least get an inkling of what the philosopher of Malmesbury was trying to get at in grounding his theory of Social Contract in a self evident, universal, foundational reality: life.

Human beings do not agree on the fairest means of distributing goods and wealth, but we do agree that without access to basic resources we perish.  We humans do not agree on issues of religion, faith, salvation and the after life, indeed we often kill each other over these differences, rather dramatically making Hobbes’s point!  Sadly, we do not agree on human political equality or personal freedom, or the essential dimensions of human dignity. Nonetheless we all hang by a common thread of mortality, and in a biosphere increasingly loosing its capacity to support life we are all equal in vulnerability. While there are probably as many different definitions of happiness as there are persons on our planet, without life, the articulation of the meaning of happiness is the most empty of all speculations.

To his credit, Hobbes believed that once we understood our common vulnerability as living beings, we would make peace on earth our first priority.  For me, that is as foundational as it gets.

A Man for our Season

The Life and Times of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury

Almost every serious book on Thomas Hobbes begins with a brief biography of the man. Several of these are truly excellent: Noel Malcolm’s “A summary biography of Hobbes” in The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes (Edited by Tom Sorrel, Cambridge University Press, 1996) is my favorite; A. P. Martinich has written the definitive biography of Hobbes, and his 23 page summary of that book in “Chapter 1, Life,” of his book  Hobbes in the Routledge Philosophers series, is also first rate; and finally there is the classic summary of Hobbes’s life by his young friend John Aubrey in his wonderful [old book] Brief Lives (Penguin Classics, 2000)I relate this bibliographic detail for two reasons:  First, I am not going to attempt here what others have already done far more adequately than I might.  Further, Hobbes’s life is so important to any real understanding or application of his work that I hope to encourage the reader to look at one or more of these succinct, thoughtful perspectives on his life.  Hobbes is important for our own times for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the manner of his life itself. 

I have a short view of time.  Perhaps this is because my grandfather, whom I knew well, was born during the American Civil War and one of his sons, my dear friend and uncle, is still alive at 96 and making daily contributions to the civic life and arts of Denver, Colorado.  Two lives, three different centuries, two-thirds of the history of my country since our social contract was ratified in 1787!  Hobbes did not live that long ago in terms of human political, social and cultural evolution.  He was born on the hinge of the times in which we still live, and he made a lasting contribution to the substance of what we are: our politics, our economics, our ethical frameworks, i.e. our understanding of ourselves.

I wish to make three biographical points about Hobbes before turning to his writings and their application to our own times: (1) the turmoil of his origins; (2) the courage of his public scholarship, (3) the grace and gentle humanity of the man.

Hobbes was born of very poor parents in a nothing of a place, Westport Parish, just outside of Malmesbury, Wiltshire, England on April 15, 1588.  Most fascinating of all the unlikely aspects of Hobbes’s ominous origins is the actual year of his birth, 1588.  Garrett Mattingly in his book, The Defeat of the Spanish Armada, (Garrett Mattingly © 1959, printed by Butler & Tanner, LTD, London, p. 159) in a Chapter titled “The Ominous Year,” frames the historical moment this way:

Another cloud lay over the coming year more mysterious and terrifying than that of war.  It had been discerned over a century before, perhaps many centuries before, and as 1588 approached the awful rumour of impending disaster spread throughout western Europe. . . .To those who had sufficiently studied the question there seemed to be no doubt that all history (would end) with awful finality in 1588.

The German theologian Philip Melanchthon (1497 – 1560), an associate of Martin Luther, had computed the coming of the Apocalypse predicted by The Book of Revelation to be 1588 AD (This date being 70 years after Luther, in 1517 defied the Pope, nailed up his Ninety-five Theses and thus launched the Reformation.) The period of 70 years is the penultimate time in Revelation between the appearance of the “Anti-Christ” – presumably the Pope — and the advent of the Apocalypse. Enter baby Thomas Hobbes!

 With the Spanish Armada on the verge of invading England in 1588, the potential agency of the end of the world was real enough for the religiously superstitious.  No wonder Hobbes would write that his mother (we don’t even know her name), the uneducated daughter of a yeoman, “gave birth to twins that year — myself and Fear!”  How his mother’s anxious state actually affected the young Hobbes is, of course, subject to conjecture.  But the correspondence between her fear, to which Hobbes attributes his premature birth, and the grounding of his public philosophy in fear itself is at least not idle speculation.  Very simply, the quaking earth of the emerging new epoch rocked Thomas Hobbes’s cradle.

Hobbes’s father, also named Thomas, clearly contributed nothing to the emotional, financial or physical stability of his family, and if anything, made desperate matters worse.  The elder Thomas Hobbes was an Anglican clergyman who was fired from his job at the parish church for being derelict in his duties, for drinking too much, for hitting a fellow clergyman and for failing to appear before the court in a libel suit brought against him by the fellow he had assaulted and defamed!

We know that Hobbes had an older brother, Edmond, and a younger sister, Anne, but nothing about their relationships.  Save for the generosity of his uncle, Francis Hobbes, a successful merchant and glove maker, Thomas would have received no education beyond grammar school. His accomplishments suggest that his early teacher Robert Latimer must have done a marvelous job prior to Hobbes going off to Oxford.  The senior Hobbes vanished into obscurity about the time Hobbes at 15 entered Magdalen Hall in 1603. At the time of his study at Oxford, Magdalen Hall was a part of Magdalen College. Its buildings, including Magdalen Hall, would become the physical home of Hertford College by act of Parliament in 1874. 

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes

 This portrait of Thomas Hobbes hangs in Hertford College, Oxford.

(There is a persistent rumor in Oxford that the picture was put in the dining hall of the College as a deterrent to rodents, and has thus far, lo these many years, succeeded in its purpose.  There is no truth to this tale. But handsome he was not.)

The year of his matriculation at Oxford was the year Queen Elizabeth I died.  The time of the Tudors was over, and the turmoil of the 17th Century Stuart reign looming, the historic and often violent movement from Monarchy to Democracy had begun. Elizabeth’s unlikely replacement was the Scottish King, James VI, crowned James I of England.  Unlikely at least in the sense that James’s mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had conspired to depose her cousin Elizabeth two or three times in attempts to reinstate a Catholic presence on the throne of England, for which treachery she was arrested, tried, convicted and finally after a long stay in The Tower of London, beheaded.  Fortunate it was for her young son, James, however, that he had been taken as a baby from his mother; baptized by John Knox, and raised as a Presbyterian!

While Hobbes was clearly talented intellectually (he knew both Latin and Greek before entering upon his university studies), he truly disliked much of his experience at the University and would become a severe critic of the academic sterility and rigidity of early 17th Century Oxford. Much of Hobbes’s education was acquired on his own initiative while a tutor and traveling companion for various sons of the Cavendish family, with whom he was associated for almost three decades. Among the distinguished persons Hobbes tutored was the young Prince Charles, the future Charles II of England, to whom he taught math during his self imposed exile in France (in the 1640s).

Having taken responsibility for his own education, Hobbes was not intellectually beholden to any one person or any tradition, and this alone made him fit for the task of fundamentally reframing the political discourse of his time. Academics of his day would sometimes complain that Hobbes had not read enough books, actually meaning I suspect, that Hobbes was not a prisoner of prevailing academic research, for clearly he was a voracious reader. Today Hobbes is thought of as a foundationalist, meaning simply that he sought to ground his moral and political philosophy in the most basic or self-evident principles.  As we shall discuss, he abhorred presumption, and one can imagine that the presumptuousness of the tradition-laden academics of his time, locked [as most were] in Aristotelian models of science and political theory, drove him to distraction. 

Yet it was not a time for challenging the established order openly.  There were consequences for confronting the state, the academy and the church; heresy and treason were still capital offenses. In the course of his public scholarship Hobbs was never  a member of any university faculty and had no protection by right of tenure.  But Hobbes was a radical in the best and most glorious sense of the word; he went for the radial center, the jugular of all intellectual pretense.  He was what tenured faculty both then and now should aspire to be – challengers of the system! [Yet, sadly, how seldom is that exalted office ever used for such.  It causes one to wonder if academic tenure is merely about job security.]  Thomas Hobbes, derisive of the secure pretention of academia, did not intend, nor did he live, a life removed from public controversy.

If the old political cliché is correct, i.e. that a person’s character can be judged best not by his friends but 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 formulator 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 about both Hobbes’s flawed attempts to “square the circle” as well as  who was 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 prominent churchmen 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 to become a member, though he was a far more accomplished thinker and scientist than ninety-nine percent of the Society’s membership.  [So much for the academy's commitment to fairness and objectivity!]

John Aubrey, who chronicled Hobbes’s life, said of his friend, “He was flumen ingenii (a river of genius) never dry.”  Aubrey’s apt metaphor can be expanded, for Hobbes like a river relentlessly maintained his course.  If there is a single word to describe Hobbes’s approach to his life of public scholarship it would have to be persistent.  Hobbes persisted in developing his ideas of human nature, sovereignty, governance, law, ethics, theology, science, against the prevailing currents of political, academic and religious conformity literally to the day he died.  His style of communication was always explicit, clear, blunt, focused on his readers, applied rather than theoretical and intensely conscious of the consequences of every word.  He aimed his shots. For example,  “The Elements of Law,” a precursor essay to De Cive circulated to key political friends in 1640 ), focused squarely on the public debate raging between Royalists and Parliamentarians and “occasioned much talk of the author; and had not his Majesty dissolved the Parliament, it had brought him in danger of his life.”  (Aubrey, Brief Lives)

In 1640 politics got too intense for Hobbes in England.  A certain Bishop Manwaring of St. David’s had been thrown into the Tower of London for preaching a doctrine much like Hobbes own theories, apparently expounding on the relationship between religion and political governance.  His Arrogance, Charles I, was beginning a struggle to the death (literally) with Parliament, and Hobbes was being attacked by both sides of the conflict — by the Monarchists and clergy for his writings questioning the notion of “divine right” as the foundation of sovereignty, and by the democratic voices in the Parliament for supporting a strong and singular concept of sovereignty.  We will return to this central issue in Hobbes’s political theory, but for now suffice it to comment that while it is always easy to offend one side or another in a political squabble, it takes real skill to offend everybody.  Hobbes, however, was up to the challenge.  He also realized that it was time to get out of town.  “Then thought Mr. Hobbes, ’tis time now for me to shift for myself; so withdrew into France.”  (Aubrey, p. 429)

For more than 11 years Hobbes would live in self-imposed exile in Paris.  He finished De Cive (On the Citizen) in 1642 and had this published in Europe where it established his reputation as a first rate political philosopher.  His work on The Leviathan was begun and finished during this decade abroad as well.  His presence on the Continent would bring him into contact and conflict with the likes of Descartes and Bramhall, among others.  And it was in Paris that he wrote and designed the frontispiece for The Leviathan, targeted as nothing less than a broadside to the political debate and civil turmoil of his native England.  Sending The Leviathan home ahead of himself, Hobbes headed back to London in 1652. 

A few significant things had happened in England since Hobbes’s hasty exit more than a decade earlier.  The union of Scotland, Wales and England achieved by James I, had come unglued.  The tensions between Charles I and Parliament had become untenable.  Fueled by the volatile combination of religion and politics, the nation sank into civil war.  Royalists and Antimonarchists; Anglicans, Presbyterians and Catholics; Scots, Brits and Welsh (with the Irish seething on the side burner) descended into historic chaos. Even serious students of this period of British history need an annotated program to keep up with the actors and the action.  Charles is defeated by a Scottish force in 1646, surrenders and is turned over to the Parliament in London.  From thence he escapes, makes alliance with dissidents in Scotland, invades England, and is defeated, imprisoned, tried and beheaded (1649) by a Parliament which lacked the legal authority to perform any of those acts, including its decision to abolish the monarchy itself.  Oliver Cromwell took control of the government — the Parliament, the military and all — as Lord Protector, declaring the mess a Commonwealth, and instituted the first and only period of British rule without a regent.  

And thus came home in January, 1652, Thomas Hobbes and his Leviathan touching the quick of almost every sensitive issue the nation had just been up in arms about.  Amazingly, however, Hobbes frames his theory of government to encompass all that has transpired in his absence — regicide, revolution and all – and enters into one of the most stable and socially satisfying periods of his life.  Perhaps, for a while at least, the venom which had so often poisoned his public life was drained by the lances of the recent war and the continuing political chaos under the Cromwells.  Hobbes, at any rate, was to enjoy this unique period of his life, as Martinich notes: “The 1650s were probably the single best decade of Hobbes’s life.  He was safe and famous in England.  He associated with some of the best people in London, like John Selden, William Harvey, and Charles Scarborough, and attending social gatherings where he would teach his philosophy to anyone who was interested.”  (Hobbes, Routledge Philosophers Series, p. 17)

In even the politically more stable years of the 1660s Hobbes would again became embroiled in conflict.  The Leviathan had been controversial with both politicians and churchmen since the day of its publication in England.  And in his usual confrontational style, Hobbes had a beautiful edition of the book done for Charles II upon the latter’s restoration to the throne in 1660. It is unclear whether Charles II ever read the almost 400 page treatise, which had been printed in beautiful calligraphy, but more than once after the Restoration the King had to intervene to prevent the Parliament and Hobbes’s enemies from having the his old teacher put to the stake.  Nothing, of course, prevented his magnum opus from being burned in public.  In a partisan era, it could be fatal to be labeled a “Hobbesist.”

Late into the 1660s Church leaders were lobbying the Parliament to have Hobbes, now an old man of over seventy, tried for heresy.  Aubrey, again, notes that when the Parliament was considering trying Hobbes for heresy “which he hearing feared that his papers might be search’t by their order, and he told me that he had burnt part of them.”  Apparently the papers he burned were writings against the “encroachment of the clergy.”  It is little wonder that Hobbes wanted to exorcize the Church form the political process, and not surprising either that he saw fear and anxiety as such a fundamental aspect of the human condition.

And yet withal, Hobbes was a gentle man. Like anyone, he could be provoked, yet his anger seems always reserved for the pretentious and the argumentative rather than for critics who took his work seriously.  Hobbes loved public discourse but disdained acrimonious public debate.  “I do not indulge in controversy, I simply reason,” he wrote in De Cive. He was a public philosopher, and a controversial one at that, who believed in thoughtful deliberation and civil discourse, long before those concepts would make it into the lexicon of good citizenship.  And he was a person of courage.  From the day of his birth until his final words, Hobbes dealt with fear and death philosophically as the fundamental realities of human motivation and palpably as realities of his life itself.  But courage is not the lack of fear, of course, it is rather the grace with which fear is addressed.  Hobbes died on December 4, 1679.  His autobiography written in Latin verse, composed during his final years ends thus, “And Death, standing close to me, says, ‘Do not be afraid’.”  (Hobbes, A. P. Martinich, p. 23, Routledge, 2005) 

Weather or Not

March 17, 2009 – St. Patrick’s Day

I love weather forecasts.  I love trying to forecast the weather.  As a sailor I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what winds and seas would be like in long trans-ocean races, or just for a weekend of sailing on the Chesapeake or Buzzards Bay.  In our graduate sailing programs at Daniels College I’m allowed to do the weather each day before the students go out to bash about on San Diego Bay.  As interesting as the subject is, I cannot explain why Sarah – the sailing director — always tells me to “keep it short.”  I do try to obey orders.

Of course the weather is not easy to predict.  That may be why so many people enjoy watching the weather channel in the States or the weather portion of the BBC 1 broadcasts here in the UK.  The reason the weather is hard to predict is because atmosphere and oceans are chaotic systems.  Sailing is done where the ocean of air meets the ocean of water, and that tangent is the most chaotic place imaginable, weather-wise. (Marriage is a whole different story, but there’s not time here for detailing that chaos.) I communicate such wisdom as this, in the limited time allowed by the sailing director.  At the end of my truncated forecast I always say, “So we’re going sailing . . .” and the students chime in, “weather or not!”  Can’t have more fun than that!

I religiously watch the BBC Weather Forecast at 0706 each morning of my sabbatical in Oxford.  Now I am aware that it is not politically correct to criticize cultural aspects of countries one is visiting in.  It’s, well, tacky.  So I have waited well over two months before making the following critical comments about weather forecasts in the UK.

First, the forecasts here are too damn vague.  “The weather today will be mostly dry with clear spells leading to patchy mist or fog and perhaps a touch of frost towards dawn.”  That was my forecast this morning, March 17, St. Patrick’s Day.  Words like “spells” are abundant in the vocabulary of BBC weather persons.  There are sunny spells; wet spells; windy spells; cloudy spells; patchy spells of fog, etc.  My Aunt Jonce used to have spells – fainting spells; dizzy spells; spells of nausea; crying spells, etc.  She also had hot flashes and fits of temper.  But back home we didn’t use “spells” to describe the weather.

Here’s another thing, and St. Patrick’s day underlines the point, while the BBC shows viewers a satellite view of the British Isles, the weather people never give you the weather conditions for the southern portion of Ireland.  They discuss the spells that Northern Ireland is having; the temperature (in C), wind speeds (Beaufort Scale) and cloud conditions for Belfast, but for Dublin?  There’s not even an indication on the weather map that the wonderful city of James Joyce and Guinness Stout  even exists.  And Cork or Killarney or Limerick or Galway? Nil. 

I tried to discuss this matter with some British colleagues at lunch today in St. Antony’s.  I pointed out that, while I was aware of “The Troubles” it seemed to me that weather should be somehow devoid of politics.  Indeed that is one of my favorite things about the weather, it has nothing to do with either religion or politics, and certainly not with both together – that being more chaos than even God could imagine.  My college friends responded that The Republic of Ireland was not a part of the UK, and that the BBC was a UK institution and it only broadcast in Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom.  So there was no need to carry the weather for the Irish Republic.  I said I understood the jurisdictional point, but what if I was planning on going over to Dublin for a few days of pub hopping (which I am) and wanted to know how the weather would be?  I mean is it too much trouble just to draw in Dublin, etc. and put a temperature and a wind indicator?  Would it be an act of disloyalty to Her Majesty?  After all, the President of the Republic of Ireland is a woman (Mary McAleese) and the Queen would understand.  There followed some inappropriate discussion about women, predictability, chaos and the weather that I won’t go into here.

There are a couple of things about weather reports here in the UK that I do like.  The temperature is given in degrees Celsius “C” as it is in the rest of the civilized world, excepting the US.  A key number for metrically challenged persons is 20 C which is 68 degrees Fahrenheit, and this is the perfect inside and outside temperature, depending, of course, on the wind and humidity.  So if the wind is not blowing in your house, turn the thermostat down to 68.!  The other thing I like about the weather forecast in the UK is the use of Beaufort Scale for wind.  At first, I thought the wind was always light, i.e. 2 or 5 or 7 knots at the strongest.  Then I recalled that their weather maps here used Beaufort, meaning each number 1 to 12 represents a wind and sea condition, not the miles per hour or knots of wind-speed.  Zero is calm; four is the perfect sailing breeze (11 to 15 knots); twelve is a hurricane (over 64 knots and you don’t go sailing).  Some years back Beaufort forces up to 17 were added to the scale, mostly because of how much more violent tropical storms are becoming thanks to global warming.

Ok, ok, Sarah, I’m about to finish.  But you should know that the Beaufort Scale was invented by a British Admiral who was born in Ireland, Sir Francis Beaufort.  And if that isn’t reason enough to include The Irish Republic in the BBC weather forecast, I don’t know what is.  So happy St. Patrick’s Day . . . and I’m going to the library . . . weather or not.

Beaufort Force 12

Beaufort Force 12

A Visit with Jeremy

March 6, 2009

A Visit with Jeremy

A Life Dream Come True 

Jeremy and Buie

Jeremy and Buie

I had always wanted to visit the great social reformer and founder of Utilitarian Philosophy Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832) at University College London.  Friday of this week I was able to secure an appointment.  Conveniently, as a condition of his Last Will and Testament, Dr. Bentham is preserved in a glass case at the College he helped found.  He is seated in his old college chair and has a most pleasant expression on his face.  Turns out neither the face nor the head are his anymore, it having become necessary to substitute a life-like wax head because on three separate occasions his real head was taken away as part of various student pranks.  His head is retained elsewhere, and I was, unfortunately, not able to meet with this part of Professor Benthan.

There are so many commendable things to relate about Jeremy.  He was mentor and teacher for father James Mill and son John Stuart Mill, the latter having done the major lifting  to ensconce Utilitarian thought in its place as one of the two classic approaches to normative ethics.  Bentham was also someone who worked against both racism and sexism in the laws and institutions of early 19th Century England, and was a strong critic of such practices as the death penalty, as well as corporal punishment of most sorts, particularly such punishment directed at children.  Bentham championed the separation of church and state (not a popular position to this day in the UK), and opposed the criminalization of homosexual acts.  He was both a lawyer and an academic.  With such a magnificent resume, I was truly impressed with how little he had to say about himself.  He proved to be an excellent listener throughout my brief visit.

Jeremy is still active in affairs of his college, having attended on at least two occasions meetings of his faculty – the 100th and 150th anniversaries of his death.  Apparently, being dead is a useful attribute in terms of fully appreciating and enjoying faculty meetings.  He also plays (though I was unable to get him definitively to confirm this) an important role in faculty meetings of University College; Bentham dutifully breaks all ties by voting in the negative.  He recommended this approach to me as being an insightful way not to have to listen to faculty hair-splitting debates, while almost always contributing to the greatest good for the greatest number relative to the outcome of faculty decisions.  Nothing being usually better than something.

As many of my colleagues know, I am not inclined to be particularly Utilitarian or Teleological in my approach to ethics.  Teleological (teleos is Greek for “the end”) ethics in which ends justify means has always left me cold.  But I will grant him this, Jeremy Bentham has uniquely avoided an end that most would agree is as inevitable as taxes.  Oh, by the way, Jeremy did ask me as I was about to leave if I could speak to the Provost about turning up the heat in University Hall.


Saturday, February 21, 2009



“. . . it is plain, that they shall conjecture best, that have most experience: because they have most signs to conjecture by; which is the reason that old men are more prudent, (emphasis added for the benefit of my 6 children and 13 grandchildren) that is, conjecture better, than young.  For, being older, they remember more; and experience is but remembrance.”

- Thomas Hobbes, Human Nature, Chapter IV.

In the ancient cemetery of The Church of Mary the Virgin, in Chipping Norton, on a day in the deep of winter, there are Snowdrops (Galanthus).  Where death is ubiquitous; lives planted and marked and forgotten across a millennium, arise flowers in February. Low, but brilliant, sunlight warms an ancient heart, and insolates a dimming memory.  She loved such flowers.  Her voice – so often strained and serious – would trill upon discovery of a snowdrop in our winter lawn in Denver or a bluebell high in the mountain reaches on a summer hike in the Rockies.  Alone in this churchyard I can hear her soft, explosive, “Oh, oh . . . look!”  I can recall the pleasure of being included in the radiance of her wonder. 

Got up and said hello to this Saturday of “unseasonable,” the weatherman’s word, sun and warmth, by grabbing my jacket, my cell phone and my bike helmet and heading north on Thames Street.  Up Walton Street through Jericho and out to Woodstock Road heading north again.  I had been dying to bike deep into the hills beyond Oxford to “the gem of the Cotswolds,” Chipping Norton.  I had read the damn tourist guide so often sitting in my study window watching the freezing rain and snow of a miserable British January, I knew it almost from memory.  Finally, I could get out on the road. And un-me like I had a plan!  I would go to Woodstock on what I knew to be a great bikeway, then ask about the road north from there, the 15 or 16 miles to CN.  I would arrive in time for lunch, look around the town, then put my bike on a bus and leisurely return.

I got to Woodstock so quickly that I skipped the part of my plan about asking for road conditions, and just headed down the way to Chipping Norton.  So did everybody else in the Queendom.   Lories, sports cars, caravans, garbage trucks, tour busses filled with the ancients, regularly scheduled busses filled with everybody else zoomed or chugged along the road to Chipping Norton.  It was the first truly nice weekend of 2009 and nobody was going to miss it.  When the bike path ran out – which it did a mile out of Woodstock — I wondered if nobody would miss me.  Damn that’s a narrow road!  And only this week I had been brushed by a delivery van that turned into the bike lane at Broad and Banbury in downtown Oxford sending me careening onto the sidewalk, shaken and stirred, but unhurt.  For the final hour of my trip I repeated a revised version of the 23rd Psalm, “Though I cycle through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil for lo Thou art with me, Thy rod and Thy staff they comforteth me . . .”

OK, I’m writing this, so you already know I made it.  The wind was in my face; the hills of the Cotswolds, while lovely, are really steep, and three times I had to steer out into the soggy grass road shoulder to avoid oncoming Armageddon (I was going to relate a stupid pun here, i.e. “arm a gettin’ out of the way” but I decided not to.)  And there was road kill: a beautiful red fox, a ring necked pheasant, and two hedge hogs.  I considered the meaning of the poker term straight flush, but prayed I would not be a part of that hand.

And finally there it was, ancient Norton.  Chipping means “market place” and, by god, everyone had chipped in and there were markets everywhere – the Saturday Farmers’ Market; a Tool Fair in the old town hall; a charity quilting and woolens bazaar, and peddlers of every description around the town center.  It had taken three grueling, death defying hours, but I was here!  And there across the square was The Fox Inn and Tavern.  “And thou preparest a table before me . . .”

Here’s how hungry I was.  I like almost everything there is to eat with only two exceptions, liver and green peas.  Justin, the inn keep, showed me to a nice table and asked what I wanted.  I said I’d have a pint of his Blonde Summer Ale and a Guinness, mushroom and steak pie with veggies.  In no time at all, Justin returned with the ale and right on his heels a lovely young girl with a plate of meat and veggies.  I dug in.  It was wonderful.  Only problem, both Justin and the young lovely returned immediately to tell me, I’d gotten the wrong lunch.  I had the “Liver, Bacon, Onions and Peas Lunch” ordered by the lady at the table next to mine. It was her favorite, and the Chef had specially cooked it for her.  She had been waiting on it for twenty minutes or so.  Her companion asked me what I had ordered.  He was a sorta big guy.  I said, “Uh . . . Guinness, mushroom and steak pie.” Fortunately his only overt act was to roll his eyes.  I kept my head down, but cleaned my plate.  Yummmm.

So then I headed out to find the bus stop.  Justin told me there was a bus every hour to Oxford “on the hour.”  It was exactly 1400.  Great Plan.  Unfortunately, the bus driver informed me that they didn’t allow bikes on the bus.  “But they do in Denver,” I said lamely.

 ”Don’t here,” was all he said to me.  And then he turned as he was closing the door and said something to the fellow in the first seat back.  I only caught the word “Yanks” and he was shaking his head.  I could have told him they did allow bikes on busses in London where I’d been just yesterday, but thought better of it.

And that is how I got to really enjoy a truly beautiful town.  Justin showed me to a really nice room in The Fox.  It was classically modern, blonde woods, chrome and exposed 350 year old beams of the original inn.  There was even an “en suite” shower, under which I stood for something like twenty minutes.  I had no tooth brush, no clean clothes, no earphones for my iPhone’s tunes.  But I had a soft bed and a whole evening I’d never counted on.

And so it was that I came to the snowdrops in the cemetery of the old church.  Memories buried forever, returned.  Warm feelings about how lucky a person I’ve been in this life – my children and my grandchildren, wiser by far than I and in such appropriate and   joyful ways taking on the business of living in this tortured time.  Each child my snowdrop in the declining years of life, hope this soul can feel long before the end of winter.

 My old friend Kenneth Bolding once told me that the whole glory of life in our later years was learning the joy of “declining gracefully.”  Going home from Chipping Norton and the Cotswolds was graciously down hill, and the wind was behind me all the way.

February 9: Point of View

February 9, 2009: Point of View

Today I have been in Oxford on sabbatical for exactly one month.  I have made a wonderful adjustment to my new environment, which includes the worst winter weather in modern history.  I take some pride in having achieved, in this short time, a renewed degree of focus and dedication to my work on the thought and writings of Thomas Hobbes.  But . . .


Across a small terrace outside my study window is an artist’s studio.  His window and my window are both one story above the small terraced garden below.  In the day time his curtains are open, and so are mine.  About 1000 each day students come to his studio to paint and draw under his watchful instruction.  I can see their easels and their canvasses.  I can see their intense focus and careful brushstrokes.  What I cannot see is what they are looking at, drawing, painting, enjoying.  The object of the students’ stares is within the studio beyond my angle of repose.  But whatever, it is tantalizingly near to my line of sight, but still just around the sill of his unshuttered window.

And so I must fantasize.  Well, anyway, I do fantasize.  I think it might be a bowl of lusciously ripe fruit – a Renaissance of opulence, Rubenesque in presentation — large yellow golden pears with drooping red purple grapes overhanging both them and an orange terracotta bowl.  There are also guavas intermeshed with passion fruit and green yellow Caribbean limes causing the students to lean forward, fixed in gaze, enraptured.  Their canvasses are at an oblique angle to me and I cannot see their renderings, but often they lick their lips and touch their salivating mouths.  Succulence.  It must be fruit.

Or maybe not. 

It could be a bicycle.  The art teacher has a marvelous silver blue racing bike that he never leaves outside where the rest of us lock and leave our bikes to the gentle mercies of the English winter.  Each day nice enough to ride, he pushes – God to be 30 something again and have back and leg muscles like that – his bike up our hill and soars off on the bike path toward Blenheim or beyond.  And, returning, effortlessly lifts his instrument of speed into his home and studio, vouched safe against snow, rain and thieves. So there beyond my craning neck his bicycle poses, a challenging objet d’art of glancing light and delicate hues.  I can see the teacher leaning over the subtle shoulder of a female student now, pointing out something, perhaps the smooth turning of the goose-neck or the chrome coolness of the crank.  It’s a bicycle.

Or maybe not.

Muscular, handsome art instructor person also has a Yellow Labrador Retriever that lives in his flat.  The dog’s name is Isis, I suspect for the branch of the River Thames that runs by the studio.  Isis is a young Lab and often sleeps in the sunshine – when there is any – of the window across the room from the window I can see into.  But Isis is not in her spot today, and I imagine her sleeping snugly just now on a powder blue cashmere cushion, an imposing still life for the students’ practice, just beyond my seeing round the corner of the window over there.

But then the students put down their brushes and their pencils and begin to applaud and smile, and walking in among them, into the line of my eager sight, a magnificent, tall woman with a sheet draped over appears.  The teacher hugs her ample torso, her head drops back cascading radiant strawberry tresses, and the applause continues, as ballerina like she pivots and then is gone from view.

I have made an important career decision.  Screw Hobbes, I’m going to learn to paint.

Along the Thames, February 1, 2009

Along the Thames, February 1, 2009 

A foot and bike path runs from the building I live in along the River Thames out to the hills and green fields of Oxfordshire north of the City.  This morning as I push my bike up to the entry of the path there are swans swimming in the cold winter currents of the river.  The sun, low in the southeast, cuts through the trees, glances off the water and touches a place of remembered warmth within my body – a child I held, a woman who held me.  Along this river royal yachts have coursed: oarsmen bringing Henry VIII to confront his Lord Chancellor for not granting his divorce; Elizabeth I traveling to Stratford, perhaps to visit Walter or William; James I and VI escaping the clamor of London, dreaming of his highland home he’d left in Scotland.  People of purpose.  Today it’s just me and my bike.

The wind behind me pushes my bike fast along beside the river.  On my right there are bridges crossing back to Oxford, and looking in their beckoning direction I see the spires of the churches and colleges of my beautiful, temporary city.  A crew – stroke, stroke, stroke – moves against the current going in my direction.  The mechanical sound of the coach’s bullhorn seems historically discordant to my sense of being in a 17th Century time warp.  I pedal hard, standing up over the pedals, to escape the present and course back in time.  And there are swans again, and ducks and birds in from the sea.  And me.

Have you had the feeling of returning to where you’ve never been before?  I hope the final transition is much like what I am feeling now.  There is sun!  And even an angler tempting trout to desert their winter hibernation and strike like it was May and hatches were swirling above the currents.  Have you been tempted like that?  To go for something that is so alluring, but totally out of sequence with your life?  I pedal harder and try to quit thinking of that.  I hope the fish stay in their dark, deep water places.  It’s not the season for getting caught.  

A couple with a jogging stroller approach from ahead on the path.  What a beautiful child they have!  Sparkling pink skin and blue eyes, covered in a sky blue blanket, he is the future waiting.  They have stopped along the river, and while their son sleeps, so tiny so fragile, they are kissing.  I look away.  Their joy!  Could it always last?  Couldn’t they forever feel what they are feeling now?  They have made a life, and it has made them, in this moment a Holy Trinity – three persons, one substance.  Christ, why did I ever study theology?  It is simply just human joy.  But I know as well that it is a sacrament.  In this moment, eternal, the body and blood of forever.

At the end of the bike path there is a small road leading to an old thatched roof tavern, The Perch. Smoke rises from a chimney.  Through the distortion of the ancient glass of the windows I can see people, young and old, dinning and drinking.  And I think of my Dad and the times we were so happy just sitting in a boat and waiting for a perch or a bass to strike, and being content in our time even if they never did.  It’s time to turn for home.  

January 25, 2009: Sunday and Robert Burns’ 250th Birthday


Got up this morning expecting heavy rain in and around Oxford.  But it wasn’t raining, and only a bit cool (7 C).  And so I got on me bike and headed north on Woodstock Road out of Oxford.  I cycled on an excellent bike path that runs along A 44 to the town (you guessed it) of Woodstock.  This part of England – called The Cotswolds — is gently beautiful.  Rolling hills, green fields, and limestone inns, houses and churches form the landscape.  This is where Chaucer hailed from, and the name places are of towns like Bath, Stratford upon Avon, Gloucester and Chipping Norton.

Woodstock is an ancient town, 15 miles from Oxford, where Henry I built a hunting lodge in the 12th Century and where old Geoffrey Chaucer lived for part of his life.  John Churchill was knighted (Duke of Marlboro) as well as given an estate here by the crown after his success against the French in the Battle of Blenheim (1704, The War of Spanish Succession).  He was also given the resources to build a palace that many believe is the most beautiful and grandest in all of the UK.  He named it for the battle, thus Blenheim Palace.  Sir Winston Churchill was born in a little room off of the grand ballroom, when his mother (dancing the night away) went unexpectedly into labor (Not the Labour Party, mind you.).  The Palace and gardens are closed until February 14, so I didn’t get inside (but had previously toured the place in 2005).

I turned home having taken only about an hour to reach Woodstock, and found, of course, the wind now against me.  Someday I’ll learn that if the cycling is really easy going out, it means the wind is likely behind you, and will be in your face returning!  It would seem that a sailor might know this instinctively.  About an hour and a half later I made it, exhausted, back to Folly Bridge.  The British are very skimpy in using hot water for baths and showers.  I was not.

Had lunch at the little “pan-Asian” (their word) restaurant that is just below my flat. Sitting in a window seat overlooking the Thames, I did an “all you can eat” meal of what appeared to be Indian cuisine.  Whatever it was, it was fine.  Returned to my flat and read more 17th Century British history.  With all the shit that went down in the mid 1600s (For instance, they killed that nice Scottish boy Charles I), it is no wonder that T. Hobbes was mostly in a foul mood as he wrote the Leviathan.

I walked to town late in the day to meet my friend Tom Tait at the Oxford Union for a pint.  We drank to wee Robbie; and the lassies; and the brave Scots who go into battle without underpants . . . and well, we drank too much.  Then I walked down High Street to the Quad Restaurant and had a Burns’ Night Meal: haggis, tatties, bread puddin’ and a glass of Drambuie.  The Drambuie was excellent.  And thus to home and to bed.  I should note that I didn’t look for the Beast very diligently today.  It was Sunday and Robbie Burns’s birthday.  But I did recall his wonderful poem about a lesser “beastie”: 

To a Mouse, by Robert Burns

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie, 
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie! 
Thou need na start awa sae hasty 
Wi bickering brattle! 
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee, 
Wi’ murdering pattle. 

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion 
Has broken Nature’s social union, 
An’ justifies that ill opinion 
Which makes thee startle 
At me, thy poor, earth born companion 
An’ fellow mortal!

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve; 
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live! 
A daimen icker in a thrave 
‘S a sma’ request; 
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave, 
An’ never miss’t.

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin! 
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin! 
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane, 
O’ foggage green! 
An’ bleak December’s win’s ensuin, 
Baith snell an’ keen! 

Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste, 
An’ weary winter comin fast, 
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast, 
Thou thought to dwell, 
Till crash! the cruel coulter past 
Out thro’ thy cell.

That wee bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble, 
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble! 
Now thou’s turned out, for a’ thy trouble, 
But house or hald, 
To thole the winter’s sleety dribble, 
An’ cranreuch cauld.

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane, 
In proving foresight may be vain: 
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men 
Gang aft agley, 
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, 
For promis’d joy!

Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me! 
The present only toucheth thee: 
But och! I backward cast my e’e, 
On prospects drear! 
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see, 
I guess an’ fear!


So with thoughts of mice and men, plans and schemes, hopes and dreams, I lay me down.

A Day in Search of the Beast

January 16, 2009.  Personal Log:

Fun Friday.  As a gift I gave Friday to me.  Enough of doing what I had to do . . . I spent the whole day doing some things I’d been dreaming of.

Went down to The Oxford Union and joined!  Ate lunch amid the Dons of Oxford, only to learn that both the food and the beer is half the cost of any public place!  And I’d been sweating the 100 pounds cost of joining. In beer alone, I’ll recover the 100 quid in a month! The debates begin next Thursday and are every Thursday after that.  The schedule is not out, but Gordon Brown is supposed to come this term.  Recall this is where Don Seawell says he debated Winston Churchill in the early 30s.  The reading room is replete with every magazine (periodical) on the planet, and around each corner I expected to run into Harry Potter or one of Philip Pullman’s characters, Liara or Sally Lockhart.  I will run into Pullman sooner or later, he frequents the place.

Then after lunch I walked the three blocks to the Bodleian Library (there is a big argument as to whether it, or our Library of Congress, is more famous/prestigous, but this one is older by centuries).  I subscribed to the following oath:

“I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, or to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document, or other object belonging to it or in its custory; not to bring into the Library or kindle therein any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.” 


Upon this undertaking I was admitted to the most impressive library on earth.  I walked through the endless reading rooms.  Asked about rules and such (Can I bring in my laptop?   Yes.  Can I leave it over night?  No.  Can I bring in food?  or drink?  No.)  The WC’s have this sign on their doors: “Women Readers” and “Men Readers” . . . I nearly peed in my pants looking for the Men’s room, until I realized these were not separate-by-gender reading areas, but restrooms!  I then went to the ancient documents and books section and asked if I could look at the original edition of T. Hobbes, The Leviathan.  And was told, “Certainly, Sir.  But first go to the request desk and fill in a form, and you can inspect The Leviathan at this desk.”  Feeling a little faint, I decided to wait until another day for that.

I walked home just now past Christ Church College  (from which no less than 13 Prime Ministers of England have graduated) where Lewis Carol was a student, fell in love with the Dean’s daughter (Alice) and was in Wonderland for the rest of his life.  And then I walked on along to my little flat above the River Thames, No. 2 Folly Bridge.  Turns out that where Folly Bridge stands was once the cattle and livestock ford for the Medieval town . . . and thus the name “Oxford.”

Hope all of you are well.  Much talk here of the plane crash in New York, and of the plain crash of every capital market on the planet.  But I had a lovely day . . . and I hope you did too.  

Cherrie Oh!