I was just thinking about the hospital administrator that walked out of his office one day and never came back. He left a $72,000 a year job to become a street person in Northern California. His family could never get him to return to his home or job. He explained: This is my life. And it was.
And I recall the fellow in a sanitarium that spent his entire day, every day, walking around a tree. He would clasp the trunk in his left hand and circle the tree counter-clockwise and as he passed a low limb, would reach up and slap it with his right hand. This was his life.
I used to know a young woman, quite lovely but disabled, that spent every day at a bar sipping wine and playing the game machines. She told me: This is my life. And it was.
Well, in one perspective this is much like the story of bemoaning not having shoes until you see someone with no feet. And true as this is, if you live in a relatively affluent society and still find your life without meaning, filled with ennui and the "blues" as such a state of mind is sometimes called, it can lead to hopelessness that your life is of real value or of accomplishing any thing of value with your life.
But much of such hopelessness is predicated on the world itself not seeming to accomplish anything of real value, of not having any real meaning. Of such thinking comes the basis of some nihilistic philosophy.
In my solitude (great old song) I find myself wanting to enter a dialogue and make some of the following suggestions:
I would argue that the dinosaurs were not a good idea, that nature red in tooth and claw was not a good idea. I would kill all mosquitoes and glassy-winged sharpshooters. I would get rid of the mice, rats, gophers and all the snakes that feed on them. I see nothing beautiful in a hippo or elephant, the great cats that tear and rend to feed, the bears you can never trust, these are part of the failures of creation or evolution whichever you choose.
In respect to either creation or evolution, an ancient hominid six million years ago or "Lucy" four and one-half million years ago, I have to ask why? Things like this and the dinosaurs seem more like creation or evolution gone awry, much like trial and error. And had the dinosaurs not become extinct? Where would that have led' reptilian Newtons and Van Goghs?
As the world has never been kind to children, so I would point out that the world has never been kind to the softer and gentler, the poetic higher aspirations of humanity. I would have settled for the rainbows and butterflies without the dinosaurs, volcanoes, earthquakes, and flies.
Perhaps, as with Thoreau, this is in part because the idea of feeding on slaughtered animals is not convenient to my imagination; that I believe we could achieve a higher degree of success as human beings if we could leave off the killing and raising of animals for slaughter. And what need of cattle and sheep when soy products have developed to the point where they could easily supplant red meat?
But beyond Thoreau, I further believe that we as human beings should control nature red in tooth and claw and bring it into submission to a kinder and gentler nature. A human kind that could split the atom and walk on the moon seems incongruous to one that does not devote attention to bringing nature into submission and relieve it from bloodshed, both of animals and people.
I believe Emerson and his disciple Thoreau were correct in pointing out the need for people to live in harmony with nature and the giving of attention to the soul, but the present condition of nature makes such a thing impossible. As does the greed and selfishness, the ignorance and prejudices of too much of humanity. And I would include among these those that consider themselves "environmentalists" and "animal lovers" that refuse the logic of confronting the problem of nature red in tooth and claw. If a bear, like a dinosaur, ever served a useful purpose, which I do not believe, the "purpose" is long past. And if tigers and alligators are your "thing," I have to ask why? I'll take the koalas, pandas, bunnies and baby ducks (with controlled breeding) and eliminate the predators. Including most dogs and cats.
But what about pets? I hear people say. To which I reply: Well, what about them? I love animals, I have a cat, but for the greater good of humankind I believe we could well dispense with such. I'll take the bunny. At least the bunny doesn't prey on other animals; and Jimmy Carter notwithstanding bunnies don't attack people.
Of course the howls of protest can be heard immediately at such a suggestion. "Balance of Nature!" I hear the cry. Where? I ask in return. If Nature were ever balanced, I defy anyone to dispassionately show me where!
But a real balance of nature is within the power of humankind. I would far rather the bluebird and mockingbird, the quail and partridge, than hawks and blue jays.
Think for a moment why any creature like a lion should be thought "beautiful?" Is it because of some primeval and barbaric bloodlust in humanity, some long-past worship of power in beasts reflective of a similar corruption in our own nature? Immediately I think of bear-baiting, bull, cock, and dog fighting that seems to appeal to the very basest of human nature.
Granting that there are responsible people that own and train guard and attack dogs, what does it say for a society that feels it needs such animals? And in far too many cases, the owners of such animals are not responsible, are not the best representatives of a civilized society.
As to the environment, let the peoples of the world pay attention to birth control and their eating habits, like the enormous consumption of animals, let the world pay attention to the need of these being addressed before they try to solve the global problems of pollution and the environment would not be in danger. Getting rid of the "animals" in our societies, the lawless criminals that prey on human beings, and walking, even "sauntering" as per Thoreau, once more might come back into vogue without such reliance on automobiles, which have become not only modes of transportation, but steel and glass shells of relative safety, of homes away from home. Why, the nations might find they don't even need guns and nuclear arsenals.
The myth of God supposedly telling human kind to subdue the earth has real merit. The fable of the Garden included Adam and Eve being vegetarians and the shedding of the blood of animals being the result of disobedience to the will of God. Indeed we should subdue the earth. We are capable of doing so, we are capable of eliminating the weeds and thistles, the beasts of prey, of an agriculture that would be more than sufficient for our needs once these other problems like birth control, both human and animal, are acknowledged, confronted and overcome.
A vegetarian world of people and beasts' In all logic, what's wrong with the idea? I do believe a generation born and raised in such a manner according to the suggestions I have offered would consider the previous generations of animal killers and eaters savage and barbaric! But, then, just looking at the violence now so graphically portrayed in films, "games," and TV would quickly convince them of that. Not to mention that people considering themselves "civilized" are still killing one another in the name of God because of their religious prejudices, and over something some call a "Holy Land."
I believe I was taught better and tried to teach my children better. As I would tell them: My love or friendship is not contingent on people agreeing with me. But I do require that they not be disagreeable in making their disagreement known to me.
I was a young man when I built a house by hand. I now realize there was more to it than the need I felt to build a house. I think I was following Thoreau's idea that a man needs to build his own house in order to learn and understand things about himself and nature, about humanity and poetry, that can be learned by applying his hands and mind to such a task.
In building that house I confess there was a touch of Poe's Domain of Arnheim. But I chose a remote location on five acres closer to nature. And while it would have all the amenities of modern living, I would not have considered the project in a city. My ideals were those I entertained as a boy living in the Sequoia National Forest when I longed for my own cabin in the wilderness.
It would not have occurred to me as a boy to consider the thoughts of Emerson on the subject, but now my mind does turn to him often and the following passage does help to explain the way I felt as a boy when I had that forest to explore on my own and lived the life of a "mountain man" in my imagination:
When a man lives with God, his voice shall be as sweet as the murmur of the brook and the rustle of the corn. And now at last the highest truth on this subject remains unsaid; probably cannot be said; for all that we say is the far off remembering of the intuition. That thought, by what I can now nearest approach to say it, is this. When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, - it is not by any known or appointed way; you shall not discern the footprints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name; - the way, the thought, the good, shall be wholly strange and new. It shall exclude all other being. You take the way from man, not to man. All persons that ever existed are its fugitive ministers. There shall be no fear in it. Fear and hope are alike beneath it. It asks nothing. There is somewhat low even in hope. We are then in vision. There is nothing that can be called gratitude, nor properly joy. The soul is raised over passion. It seeth identity and eternal causation. It is a perceiving that Truth and Right are. Hence it becomes a Tranquility out of the knowing that all things go well. Vast spaces of nature; the Atlantic Ocean, the South Sea; vast intervals of time, years, centuries, are of no account. This which I think and feel underlay that former state of life and circumstances, as it does underlie my present and will always all circumstances, and what is called life and what is called death.
Though a classicist in his own right, when Thoreau made reference to the myth of Pallas Athena (Minerva) springing forth from the head of Zeus, I wonder if he wasn't borrowing from this thought of Emerson's? Emerson himself may have had the myth in his own mind in the above passage since he was a well-qualified, expert classicist.
I wonder if Emerson really was as brilliant as people said, and still say, that his was the greatest intellect America ever produced? I believe so. And I believe the above proves it. Few would dispute the claim that he was the greatest writer and thinker of his age.
At that, it is probable that Emerson spoke/wrote better than he knew. Real genius often does. And while it was not possible for him to know the things that I do today, while he could not know the direction history would take, he had obviously understood those things that would lead to my idea of the Amendment, the equation, and the need of women in philosophy, much as the myth of Minerva's origin.
And while I wonder if such ideas are the product of my own thinking or soul, or the ideas of those gone on before me that know the truth and suggest them to me, I believe Emerson is correct in saying that such truth is beyond the ordinary kin of what we would call the intellect alone. A kind of "intuition of the soul," a "living with God?" I do wonder.
As with those "Intimations of Immortality" that Wordsworth wrote of, it does seem to me that the Amendment and women and philosophy, the equation k+w=p, are not from my intellect, or "knowing." They seem to have sprung unbidden by any conscious effort on my part, of any conscious effort at deducing the answers to the ills of humanity' the intuition of the soul'?
But such thoughts are properly considered "metaphysical," or more charitably simply fanciful and beyond our present science to explain. What Emerson described could well be construed as madness. And it has been so described many times throughout history. But many things once considered madness are now taken for the greatest good sense of the finest minds.
Yet there are those things, such very human things that get in the way of "living with God," of being open to those "intuitions of the soul." It may be that the genius of Thoreau was unhorsed by these things because in spite of his own genius, in spite of his claiming to settle for being free of the need to "sell his baskets," in spite of my personal feelings about him as a friend and soul-brother and the constant re-reading of Walden, there appears to be envy in the great teacher of Simplicity in Living and the author of Civil Disobedience.
Thoreau did envy his great mentor Emerson. He smarted under what he felt was the failure of Emerson and others to appreciate his genius and "buy his baskets." As Emerson so well said in eulogizing Thoreau, he almost counted it a fault in him that he "had no ambition." By this, Emerson, using the gentle way of speaking for which he was so well known, was talking about Thoreau's ego that insisted others should buy his baskets on his terms.
But my dear friend Henry could not seem to exercise the "ambition" to overcome his ego. There was too much justification for James Russell Lowell's criticism of him that "' there was no excuse for his unbounded egotism," that he lived on the "windfalls of Emerson's orchard."
But I wonder; had Thoreau married and had children perhaps family would have sustained him, perhaps have even led his own genius to becoming his own man?
In how many ways has genius been undone by this fault, this tragic flaw, of Thoreau's pained ego. And what a lesson there is for all of us in such a tragedy. We rightly honor Henry for the legacy of his writings, without which English literature would be so much the poorer. But we would be foolish indeed to accept them carte blanche.
But the decline of real learning and scholarship contributed to making Henry a favorite because of the very thing he contemptuously called "easy reading," while his mentor and the greater man, Emerson, because he is not such easy reading, began to fade, even recently called by one self-appointed university "scholar" a "hobby for antiquarians."
It wasn't necessary, of course, for men like Gandhi and M.L. King Jr. to know these faults of Thoreau in order to appreciate his Civil Disobedience and find direction and inspiration from the tract. But they could have found the inspiration, even the very thoughts, for the tract in Emerson. And I ask myself, would Civil Disobedience have even been in Thoreau's mind had it not been for the thoughts and words of his mentor? I don't believe so, notwithstanding the story about Thoreau's "prisons."
Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare, Newton, Emerson, or Lincoln? It is good advice for some to follow their own genius. But it is no disgrace to not be a Shakespeare, Newton, Emerson, or Lincoln, only to ape them and think or call their genius your own.
But imagine, if you will, attempting to enter into a dialogue with others who are not capable of entertaining the great and new ideas that spring forth like Minerva, perhaps from some intuition of the soul or living with God? The ideas, for example, of actually subduing nature to the point where vicious animals, predators, attack dogs and the like are eliminated, of a society that will no longer tolerate criminals in its midst, that no longer raises and kills animals for food, these are things on too far a grand scale for the majority of people to consider. But does the inability of the great majority of humankind to understand and accept such grand ideas invalidate their logic and wisdom? Of course not.
The idea of the Amendment, for example, is on such a scale. The idea of women finally earning their place in philosophy is on such a scale. The very concepts are too hard, too complex and even too fearful for the great majority of people to understand and accept. But this does not invalidate the logic and wisdom of such concepts any more than the idea when first advanced that the earth revolved around the sun notwithstanding the fact that men like Copernicus were thought mad or heretic. Imagine, if you will, some of the things considered mad or impossible just fifty years ago? Personal computers, the Internet, cloning and mapping the human genome, all theoretical at best, the stuff of science fiction, all now realities, all opening doors to unimaginable possibilities!
And if we can consider overcoming disease, for example, why not consider subduing nature to the point where predators, including the human ones, where nature red in tooth and claw, are no longer a part of civilized society?
Unlike the fanciful, I am not arguing for the implausible. On the contrary, such things as I have suggested are altogether plausible, even being discussed right now in one manner or another. But instead of UFOs and ancient, supposedly advanced civilizations, the ideas I have offered are predicated on an enlightenment based on facts unprecedented in history, facts that are coming to light through things like archeology, paleoanthropology, astronomy, subatomic particle research, and studies in medicine and brain function that are leading us to conclusions which make my suggestions all the more plausible.
To credit Emerson's genius he knew as a young boy that life was ahead of theology and that people knew more than preachers taught. Sam Clemens had come to the same conclusion as, I am sure, Lincoln had as well.
Wisdom had always taught that the doctrines of the fathers should always be submitted to the rigors of testing, that what was held as "truth" by sages of the past must not be held solely on the basis of the prestige of the teacher as Emerson himself warned.
There are absolutes, unchangeable, so well exemplified in the Golden Rule that we should do unto others, as we would have them do unto us. Few would argue the wisdom of this dictum of truth. But, of course, this is neither Emerson's point nor mine. The point being, obviously, that while knowledge increases, accommodation to new learning is essential to progress in civilization and the testing of past knowledge against new must be an on-going process.
My loved ones and elders taught me many things as a child that were untrue. That they did so out of love and good intentions did not make these things true. But because they loved me, I believe they rejoice in my discovery of errors, that I have better knowledge of some things than they did. Had they known better, they would have done better. It is, therefore, my obligation and duty to do better in honor to them if nothing else. And it is certainly my obligation and duty to do better for the sake of my own children.
Samuel D. G. Heath, Ph.D.
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