Unfortunately, however, there is a limitation to understanding all too similar to the limitation associated with memorization. In both cases, it is quite possible to pile up information, whether mere "facts" or complex arguments without integrating them into a broader understanding of the world or without their having any impact whatsoever on your behavior. This is one of the phenomena which the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer laments in his essay "On Learning and the Learned" (1851). He wrote:
Perhaps because I worked so many of them as a child, for me the kind of thinking required in putting together jigsaw puzzles provides another nice metaphor for what I take Schopenhauer to be talking about when he speaks of digesting information. One normally begins a jigsaw puzzle by dumping all the pieces onto a table and then turning them over so the picture side is up. The problem then is to figure out how to fit all the pieces together so that the total picture is revealed. To do that one has to examine each piece in terms of shape, colors and partial images and then find other pieces with complementary shapes and images or similar colors that fit neatly with the piece in question. As the puzzle is constructed each piece has to be examined in terms of the pieces already in place in order to find how it fits in.
So it is with the things we learn. First, we have to study the individual pieces (facts, arguments, information) and understand them. Second, we have to figure out how they relate to the pieces we have already fit together, i.e., what we think we already know and the choices we have already made about how to act in the world.
The limitations of this metaphor lie in the fact that jigsaw puzzles have a predetermined solution. The puzzle was created by someone else who chose a picture and designed the die that cut the picture into pieces. This is why referring to the picture (usually printed on the outside of the box containing the pieces) while working the puzzle is not only cheating but makes working the puzzle boring. It reduces the whole process to one of mere reproduction and there is not even the excitement of discovery as fitted pieces reveal the maker's design. In either case, the result is merely the reconstruction of someone else's design.
However, unless you have fallen into the trap that Schopenhauer describes of merely understanding others' ideas and projects, there is no predetermined outcome of rumination on ideas, concepts and information and how they relate to your own ideas and behavior. Unlike a jigsaw puzzle there is no one solution; there are many, many possible outcomes in terms of both understanding and action.
This brings me to another way of talking about rumination that I would like to examine:
As I hope the above makes clear, such appropriation requires clarity on 1) your personal life trajectory, i.e., how your thinking and behavior evolved up to the moments of encountering the words, concepts and information in materials and discussion, 2) how you evaluate them in relationship to your existing ideas and actions and 3) the role you decide to let them play in your future thinking and acting.
The word "trajectory" is commonly used to denote the path of a moving body, e.g., that of a cannonball. A "life trajectory" refers, therefore, to the path a person follows as they move through their life, not their step-by-step physical movement, of course, but the more general line of their development, both intellectual and behavioral.
The Confucian concept of the dao, or "way", is one very interesting way of conceptualizing a person's "life trajectory". Confucius' teachings were primarily concerned with ethics, with how to act in the world. Studying the wisdom of the past, and what was working well in the present, he thought, could provide an individual with an initial path, or dao, to follow. But, unlike some of his followers who later turned his ideas into a dogmatic "Confucianism", he also emphasized how each person should strive to make or elaborate the dao in interesting new ways. My own reading of the Confucian Analects (ca. B.C.E. 479-221) supports Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont's interpretation:
Julius Caesar's (100-44 BC) autobiographical accounts of his wars in Gaul and in Rome - written in the third person - are primarily detailed histories of events in which he was involved - crafted to influence the political opinions and choices of his contemporaries. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius's Meditations (AD 170-180) are a much more philosophical account of his contemplations on life and death but begin with a long list of people whose ideas and behavior influenced his own. (Saint) Augustine of Hippo's Confessions (AD 397-398) provides a detailed account not only of his criminal and lustful youth, but also the evolution of his thoughts about life and theological matters including his conversion from Manichaeism to Christianity. Zahir ud-Din Mohammad Babur (1483-1530), the founder of the Mughal Empire in South Asia, on the other hand, kept a journal - said to be the first Muslim autobiography - that recounts his conquests but also tells of the people and lands he encountered. The Renaissance sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini's famous autobiography, Vita, written between 1556 and 1558, recounts his life, loves, hatreds, crimes and accomplishments in a such a fanciful manner as to slip into fiction. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions (1769) is considered the first "modern" autobiography and gives an account of both the important events in his life and how they shaped the development of his thinking. Rousseau's autobiography was soon followed by more or less similar works written by famous authors such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, John Stuart Mill and eventually by many, many others from all walks of life, including capitalists, revolutionaries, actors, sports celebrities, TV personalities, soldiers and politicians.
Now, one might think that it only makes sense to write one's autobiography after one has accomplished great things that might be of interest to others. Indeed, Cellini argued that "everyone who has to his credit what are or really seem great achievements, if he cares for truth and goodness, ought to write the story of his own life in his own hand". But he also thought that "no one should venture on such a splendid undertaking before he is over forty."
To achieve clarity about the nature and direction of the path, trajectory or dao that you have been making, I propose that you write an essay about it in which you seek to explain, in as clear vernacular prose as you can manage: where you are coming from, where you have been headed and what you think you might get out of your work in this course that might be useful in deciding where to go next. Now what I'm suggesting is a sketch that takes note of significant moments. While you have constructed your life trajectory by making choices, choosing this way, or that direction at various points, it is likely that most day-to-day choices have involved only very marginal alterations in the directions you have chosen. On the other hand, there have probably been moments in which you have made life-altering changes in your way of thinking and in your behavior. What was involved? What new information did you appropriate in ways that affected your thinking or behavior? What new understandings led to the changes? What new questions preoccupied you? What was the relationship between the changes in your thinking and the changes in your behavior?
From past experience I have learned that many people have paid little attention to such questions. Many have been so preoccupied with day-to-day worries and desires that they rarely, if ever, have engaged in the kind of self-reflection necessary to identify and understand the paths they have followed. For them writing the kind of essay I am asking for here has proved quite difficult. But on the other hand, for some, the very attempt to write has facilitated such self-reflection while reexamining at one's path, both looking back and looking forward. And clarity about where one has been, how one has thought and how one has chosen to act provides an excellent point of departure for thinking about how to confront whatever new texts, new ideas, new concepts, new information and new possible behaviors are made available in a course (or elsewhere, in a novel, in a story told by a friend, in a TV show, in a news broadcast, in a play, in a movie, or in a magazine article). Examining how and why you have appropriated ideas, concepts and behaviors in the past, makes deciding whether and how to appropriate them in the present (and future) easier.
From the reputation and remembrance of my natural father [also named Marcus Annius Verus who died when Aurelius was three years old], modesty and a manly character.
From my mother [Domitia Lucilla], piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.
From my great-grandfather [his mother's grandfather Lucius Catilius Severus], not to have frequented public schools, and to have had good teachers at home, and to know that on such things a man should spend liberally.
From my tutor [unnamed], to be neither of the green nor of the blue party at the games in the Circus, nor a partisan either of the Parmularius or the Scutarius at the gladiators' fights; from him too I learned endurance of labour, and to want little, and to work with my own hands, and not to meddle with other people's affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander.
From Diognetus, not to busy myself about trifling things, and not to give credit to what was said by miracle-workers and jugglers about incantations and the driving away of daemons and such things; and not to breed quails for fighting, nor to give myself up passionately to such things; and to endure freedom of speech; and to have become intimate with philosophy; and to have been a hearer, first of Bacchius, then of Tandasis and Marcianus; and to have written dialogues in my youth; and to have desired a plank bed and skin, and whatever else of the kind belongs to the Grecian discipline.
From Rusticus [Quintus Junius Rusticus - a Stoic politician] I received the impression that my character required improvement and discipline; and from him I learned not to be led astray to sophistic emulation, nor to writing on speculative matters, nor to delivering little hortatory orations, nor to showing myself off as a man who practices much discipline, or does benevolent acts in order to make a display; and to abstain from rhetoric, and poetry, and fine writing; and not to walk about in the house in my outdoor dress, nor to do other things of the kind; and to write my letters with simplicity, like the letter which Rusticus wrote from Sinuessa to my mother; and with respect to those who have offended me by words, or done me wrong, to be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled, as soon as they have shown a readiness to be reconciled; and to read carefully, and not to be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book; nor hastily to give my assent to those who talk overmuch; and I am indebted to him for being acquainted with the discourses of Epictetus [Stoic philosopher], which he communicated to me out of his own collection.
From Apollonius [Stoic philosopher] I learned freedom of will and undeviating steadiness of purpose; and to look to nothing else, not even for a moment, except to reason; and to be always the same, in sharp pains, on the occasion of the loss of a child, and in long illness; and to see clearly in a living example that the same man can be both most resolute and yielding, and not peevish in giving his instruction; and to have had before my eyes a man who clearly considered his experience and his skill in expounding philosophical principles as the smallest of his merits; and from him I learned how to receive from friends what are esteemed favours, without being either humbled by them or letting them pass unnoticed.
From Sextus [philosopher], a benevolent disposition, and the example of a family governed in a fatherly manner, and the idea of living conformably to nature; and gravity without affectation, and to look carefully after the interests of friends, and to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration: he had the power of readily accommodating himself to all, so that intercourse with him was more agreeable than any flattery; and at the same time he was most highly venerated by those who associated with him: and he had the faculty both of discovering and ordering, in an intelligent and methodical way, the principles necessary for life; and he never showed anger or any other passion, but was entirely free from passion, and also most affectionate; and he could express approbation without noisy display, and he possessed much knowledge without ostentation.
From Alexander the grammarian [one tutor], to refrain from fault-finding, and not in a reproachful way to chide those who uttered any barbarous or solecistic or strange-sounding expression; but dexterously to introduce the very expression which ought to have been used, and in the way of answer or giving confirmation, or joining in an inquiry about the thing itself, not about the word, or by some other fit suggestion.
From Fronto [Marcus Cornelius Fronto - lawyer and orator] I learned to observe what envy, and duplicity, and hypocrisy are in a tyrant, and that generally those among us who are called Patricians are rather deficient in paternal affection.
From Alexander the Platonic [philosopher/rhetorician], not frequently nor without necessity to say to any one, or to write in a letter, that "I am too busy"; nor continually to excuse the neglect of duties required by our relation to those with whom we live, by alleging urgent occupations.
From Catulus [Stoic - not the poet], not to be indifferent when a friend finds fault, even if he should find fault without reason, but to try to restore him to his usual disposition; and to be ready to speak well of teachers, as it is reported of Domitius and Athenodotus; and to love my children truly.
From my brother Severus [Gnaeus Claudius Severus Arabianus], to love my kin, and to love truth, and to love justice; and through him I learned to know Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dion, Brutus; and from him I received the idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed; I learned from him also consistency and undeviating steadiness in my regard for philosophy; and a disposition to do good, and to give to others readily, and to cherish good hopes, and to believe that I am loved by my friends; and in him I observed no concealment of his opinions with respect to those whom he condemned, and that his friends had no need to conjecture what he wished or did not wish, but it was quite plain.
From Maximus [Claudius Maximus, Stoic Senator] I learned self-government, and not to be led aside by anything; and cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness; and a just admixture in the moral character of sweetness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining. I observed that everybody believed that he thought as he spoke, and that in all that he did he never had any bad intention; and he never showed amazement and surprise, and was never in a hurry, and never put off doing a thing, nor was perplexed nor dejected, nor did he ever laugh to disguise his vexation, nor, on the other hand, was he ever passionate or suspicious. He was accustomed to do acts of beneficence, and was ready to forgive, and was free from all falsehood; and he presented the appearance of a man who could not be diverted from right rather than of a man who had been improved. I observed, too, that no man could ever think that he was despised by Maximus, or ever venture to think himself a better man. He had also the art of being humorous in an agreeable way.
From my [adoptive] father [Emperor Antonius Pius]: mildness of temper, and unchangeable resolution in the things which he had determined after due deliberation; and no vainglory in those things which men call honours; and a love of labour and perseverance; and a readiness to listen to those who had anything to propose for the common weal; and undeviating firmness in giving to every man according to his deserts; and a knowledge derived from experience of the occasions for vigorous action and for remission. And I observed that he had overcome all passion for boys; and he considered himself no more than any other citizen; and he released his friends from all obligation to sup with him or to attend him of necessity when he went abroad, and those who had failed to accompany him, by reason of any urgent circumstances, always found him the same. I observed too his habit of careful inquiry in all matters of deliberation, and his persistency, and that he never stopped his investigation through being satisfied with appearances which first present themselves; and that his disposition was to keep his friends, and not to be soon tired of them, nor yet to be extravagant in his affection; and to be satisfied on all occasions, and cheerful; and to foresee things a long way off, and to provide for the smallest without display; and to check immediately popular applause and all flattery; and to be ever watchful over the things which were necessary for the administration of the empire, and to be a good manager of the expenditure, and patiently to endure the blame which he got for such conduct; and he was neither superstitious with respect to the gods, nor did he court men by gifts or by trying to please them, or by flattering the populace; but he showed sobriety in all things and firmness, and never any mean thoughts or action, nor love of novelty.
And the things which conduce in any way to the comfort of life, and of which fortune gives an abundant supply, he used without arrogance and without excusing himself; so that when he had them, he enjoyed them without affectation, and when he had them not, he did not want them. No one could ever say of him that he was either a sophist or a home-bred flippant slave or a pedant; but every one acknowledged him to be a man ripe, perfect, above flattery, able to manage his own and other men's affairs. Besides this, he honoured those who were true philosophers, and he did not reproach those who pretended to be philosophers, nor yet was he easily led by them. He was also easy in conversation, and he made himself agreeable without any offensive affectation. He took a reasonable care of his body's health, not as one who was greatly attached to life, nor out of regard to personal appearance, nor yet in a careless way, but so that, through his own attention, he very seldom stood in need of the physician's art or of medicine or external applications.
He was most ready to give way without envy to those with special abilities, such as that of eloquence or knowledge of the law or of morals, or of anything else; and he gave them his help, that each might enjoy reputation according to his deserts; and he always acted conformably to the institutions of his country, without showing any affectation of doing so. Further, he was not fond of change nor unsteady, but he loved to stay in the same places, and to employ himself about the same things; and after his paroxysms of headache he came immediately fresh and vigorous to his usual occupations. His secrets were not but very few and very rare, and these only about public matters; and he showed prudence and economy in the exhibition of the public spectacles and the construction of public buildings, his donations to the people, and in such things, for he was a man who looked to what ought to be done, not to the reputation which is got by a man's acts.
He did not take the bath at unseasonable hours; he was not fond of building houses, nor curious about what he ate, nor about the texture and colour of his clothes, nor about the beauty of his slaves. His dress came from Lorium, his villa on the coast, and from Lanuvium generally. We know how he behaved to the toll-collector at Tusculum who asked his pardon; and such was all his behaviour.
There was in him nothing harsh, nor implacable, nor violent, and you would never say that he "broke out in a sweat"; but he examined all things severally, as if he had abundance of time, and without confusion, in an orderly way, vigorously and consistently. And that might be applied to him which is recorded of Socrates, that he was able both to abstain from, and to enjoy, those things which many are too weak to abstain from, and cannot enjoy without excess.
Strength of character - and endurance or sobriety as the case may be - is the mark of a man who has a perfect and invincible soul, such as he showed in the illness of Maximus.
From the Gods: [ . . . ]
8. How ardent was I then, my God, how ardent to fly from earthly things to thee! Nor did I know how thou wast even then dealing with me. For with thee is wisdom. In Greek the love of wisdom is called "philosophy," and it was with this love that that book inflamed me. There are some who seduce through philosophy, under a great, alluring, and honorable name, using it to color and adorn their own errors. And almost all who did this, in Cicero's own time and earlier, are censored and pointed out in his book. In it there is also manifest that most salutry admonition of thy Spirit, spoken by thy good and pious servant: "Beward lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, aftre the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ: for in him all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily." [Co. 2:8,9] Since that time, as thou knowest, O Light of my heart, the words of the apostle were unknown to me, I was delighted with Cicero's exhortation, at least enough so that I was stimulated by it, and enkindled and inflamed to love, to seek, to obtain, to hold, and to embrace, not this or that sect, but wisdom itself, wherever it might be. Only this checked my ardor: that the name of Christ was not in it. For this name, by thy mercy, O Lord, this name of my Saviour thy Son, my tender heart had piously drunk in, deeply treasured even with my mother's milk. [His mother, unlike his father, was a pious Christian.] And whatsoever was lacking that name, no matter how erudite, polished, and truthful, did not quite take complete hold of me.
29. What did all this further me, since it actually hindered me when, imagining whatever was, was comprehended under those categories. I essayed in such wise to understand, O my God, so that even thy wonderful and unchangeable unity could be understood as subjected to thy own magnitude or beauty, as if they existed in thee as their subject - as they do in cororeal bodies - whereas thou art thyself thy own magnitude and beauty. A body is not great or fair because it is a body, seeing that, though it were less great or fair, it should notwithstanding be a body. But it was falsehood which of Thee I conceived, not truth, fictions of my misery, not the realities of Thy blessedness. For Thou hadst commanded, and it was done in me, that the earth should bring forth briars and thorns to me, and that in the sweat of my brows I should eat my bread.
30. And what did it profit me, that all the books I could procure of the so-called "liberal arts," I, the vile slave of vile affections, read by myself, and understood? And I delighted in them, but knew not whence came all, that therein was true or certain. For I had my back to the light, and my face to the things enlightened; whence my face, with which I discerned the things enlightened, itself was not enlightened. Whatever was written, either on rhetoric, or logic, geometry, music, and arithmetic, I could understand by myself without much difficulty or any instructor. Thou knowest, O Lord my God; because both quickness of understanding, and acuteness in discerning, is thy gift: yet for thy gifts I made no thank offering to thee. Therefore, my abilities served not to my use, but rather to my perdition, since I went about to get so good a portion of my substance into my own keeping; and I kept not my strength for thee, but wandered from thee into a far country, to spend it upon harlotries. For what profited me good abilities, not employed to good uses? I did not realize that those arts were understood with great difficulty, even by the studious and talented, until I attempted to explain them to such; and discovered that even the most proficient in them followed my explanation all too slowly.
So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle's book [Paul's] when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof." [Romans 13:13] I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.
After this came Latin: it was my most painful study, and in which I never made great progress. I began by Port-Royal's Rudiments, but without success; I lost myself in a crowd of rules; and in studying the last forgot all that preceded it. A study of words is not calculated for a man without memory, and it was principally an endeavor to make my memory more retentive, that urged me obstinately to persist in this study, which at length I was obliged to relinquish. As I understood enough to read an easy author by the aid of a dictionary, I followed that method, and found it succeed tolerably well. I likewise applied myself to translation, not by writing, but mentally, and by exercise and perseverance attained to read Latin authors easily, but have never been able to speak or write that language, which has frequently embarrassed me when I have found myself (I know not by what means) enrolled among men of letters.
All of those projects involved work, often hard manual labor: hauling construction materials, cutting and shaping them, nailing or screwing or bolting them together, cultivating, planting, watering, weeding, harvesting, canning and freezing, pruning, digging and balling trees and so on. The older I got, the more numerous the tasks I was assigned and harder the work. Every day after school and for some of each weekend, I worked, often until evening. Vacations from school were usual and regular; vacation from all this work at home were brief annual events - in good years.
All of these activities were work in several senses. First, they were work in the vernacular sense of activities that took a lot of effort. Second, as a child, I also experienced them as work in the sense of undesired, onerous, imposed labor - things I had to do but had no desire to. Third, although in those years I didn’t think in such terms, they were also work, or labor, as defined by Marx in Chapter 7 of Volume I of Capital where he analyzes “the labor process”: people using tools to transform some elements of the non-human world into objectifications of human intentions, or will. Finally, all that work was also - to far too much a degree - the work of producing and reproducing labor power: the ability and willingness to work. We worked to supplement my father’s low Air Force wage - with food from the garden and money from selling the wheat and evergreen shrubs and trees. We worked to reproduce his labor power that he was selling to the Air Force, but we also reproduced that of my mother, my brother and myself. None of us thought of this work as play; we just did what we had to do. We worked to live.
So my early childhood “leisure time” - mostly evenings and weekends - was largely made up of reading and play, which were often closely interconnected. When I was very young my mother read, and reread, to me all kinds of children's books, including classics like Mother Goose, A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh and Now We Are Six, Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. What I remember best are the tales in Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus. Not only could my mother easily and dramatically reproduce the thick southern dialect but she made sure I grasped the moral of those stories of how the small and weak but very clever Br'er Rabbit repeatedly outwitted bigger and stronger predators. The tales not only embodied one form of slave struggle but offered useful lessons to small children.
Once I could read by myself I was an avid consumer of adventure stories such as Howard Pyle’s Robin Hood, Rafael Sabatini’s Scarmouche, James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, Jack London’s White Fang, Zane Gray’s The Last Trail or Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. My play, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, often involved strenuous play-acting inspired by those novels including such activities as: archery, making and wielding wooden swords and cudgels, hunting with bow or rifle in forests with my dogs, building make-believe forts, tree houses, ships, and so on. Long before anyone thought to create role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, much less video games such as World of Warcraft or the Age of Conan, my friends and I imagined and crafted our own worlds of rebels, medieval knights, pirates, and frontier pathfinders.
Episode #1: As I remember, my first serious effort come to grips with an intellectual issue occurred in elementary school and was a direct by-product of having been reared outside of religion. The event that set that effort in motion was a teacher's lecture on one basic idea in science. "According to science," she said, "everything is either animal, mineral or vegetable. Humans are animals." To this assertion, a little girl sitting beside me protested: "Well, I'm not an animal!" Laughing at her, I wisecracked, "Really? What are you then, mineral or vegetable?" She replied, "God made us; he didn't make us animals." This back and forth could have gone off in many directions but for me it led directly to the issue of evolution. Seeing no reason to accept a religious explanation of the origins of our species, the obvious alternative was Darwin's. I did go home and read a few chapters of Genesis, but soon set it aside, finding it very poetic but unconvincing. I don't remember sitting down, at that time, with Darwin's Origin of Species, but I do remember heading off to the local city library to do research on available accounts of paleontological efforts to trace the emergence of homo sapiens. I read whatever I could find on the fossil remains of Australopithecus and other such hominids, took notes and copied drawings. The upshot of this episode was first, that I learned a few of the rudiments of the theory of evolution and second, that it provided me with a satisfying intellectual alternative to Christian ideas of creation which struck me as reassuring but unconvincing. In retrospect, this early episode of debate and research set a pattern that remained with me. Throughout my life I have repeatedly taken the time to do whatever research has seemed necessary to satisfy my curiosity about this or that. Sometimes satisfaction has come quickly; sometimes it has taken years of study.
Episode #2: Although there was always a Bible in the house (King James version), I rarely consulted it, mostly to situate a quote, or understand an allusion made in some other, more interesting book that I was reading. This changed dramatically as a result of an encounter that took place when I was about fifteen.
Visiting at some friends' house (two brothers with whom I had played since childhood) I met one of their cousins who had come down from Chicago on summer vacation. In the course of our conversations this cousin made several nasty, anti-Semitic remarks about Jews. Having grown up in a scattered, rural Ohio community with no Jews (nor any blacks or other minorities) I neither understood, nor knew how to respond to his hate.
So, I went home and asked my father: "what's a Jew?" He responded, "Ah, it's time you actually read this book," pulled the Bible off a shelf and handed it to me. "Read both parts, the Old Testament and the New Testament, and you should read them in order." So, I did; I sat down and read it through. I think I spent more time on the juicy parts (e.g., the Song of Solomon) and the violent parts (e.g., the conquest of the "promised land") than on the "begat's" and the psalms, but I got the gist of it. When I went back to my father, several days later, and said, "OK, I read it; I think I got it about Jews. So some Christians still blame them for the death of Jesus. So much, I guess, for Jesus' own plea to 'love thy neighbor' or his 'Forgive them father, because they know not what they do' on the cross." "Yes," he responded, "plus, there's a long history of seeing them as sinful exploiters because in the European Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church outlawed money lending and usury, Jews often took over that role." And then he sent me off to read Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, two dramatic stories in which Jewish money-lenders figure prominently. That done (I liked Ivanhoe best) I returned and said, "OK, I got the picture." At which point, he said, "One last thing you need to read," and handed me Leon Uris' Exodus, about the holocaust and the founding of Israel.
The upshot of all this reading was not only that I learned a bit about Jewish history and anti-Semitism but that it was really my first encounter with discrimination against people who whose beliefs and cultural practices were different - and I found it offensive. I was no more interested in the particularities of Judaism than I was in those of Christianity - they both obviously had the same roots and made the term "Judeo-Christian tradition" real to me for the first time - but I was left with a real distaste for prejudice and found myself speaking out against it when ever I encountered it thereafter - and was sometimes called a "Jew-lover" in consequence. Before long, when my school's lily-white basketball team found itself playing against a largely black team from an orphanage in another town, racism raised its ugly head. I found that just as distasteful and protested racist comments - for which I was again labeled, this time, a "nigger-lover". By protests, here, I mean just speaking up as an individual in a conversation. Some years later, in college, I would translate my distaste for prejudice into social action, marching and being jailed with others in the Civil Rights Movement. Thus, my random encounter with a hate-filled, anti-Semite and the reading, and learning, it provoked led to quite definite evolution in my own social and political behavior.
Episode #3: In Junior and Senior High school, my middle-class parents went out of their way to make sure I was exposed to a variety of what they considered "good cultural influences". Besides books, this meant a variety of things. They bought me a record player and let me buy classical LPs. (The first three I bought were: Wagner's Die Valkerie, Beethoven's Eroica Symphony and Khachaturian's Gayaneh - which included his Saber Dance.) They took me to see Broadway shows when they were put on in nearby Dayton. They took me to see Shakespeare's and other plays at Antioch College, in Yellow Springs. My father wrote reviews for Opera magazine, so they also took me to a variety of operatic performances - usually in Cincinnati or Columbus. My father would also take me to European films, e.g., Ingmar Bergman's, at the Art Theatre in Yellow Springs.
The flip side of this was they wouldn't let me buy comic books (except "Classic Comics"), Rock&Roll or Country-Western 45's, bluejeans, a motorcycle or anything else they associated with "low brow", popular culture. Nor, despite their own rejection of racism were they ever interested in or able to introduce me either to the Blues or to jazz. They would tolerate my excursions into the margins of the classics, e.g., reading Catullus and Sapho as well as Julius Caesar while taking Latin, but not my "wasting" my time on what they viewed as the vulgar and ephemeral. Therefore, they were no more responsible than my school for my discovering and diving into either the writings of the Beat Generation or Cool Jazz.
Both of these were experiences of cultural weaning and intellectual awakening. Jack Kerouac's streaming autobiographical consciousness in On the Road was, for me, a whole new dao from that of Homer's Odysseus - one of my favorite books of adolescence. William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch and the poetry of Gregory Corso's Bomb and Allen Ginsberg's Howl, swept me into a different and fascinating world of drugs, sex and jazz, saturated with cultural and political critique. The only drug easily available in rural Ohio was alcohol, which held no interest for me and the desperate hallucinations portrayed as being associated with stronger ones tempted me even less. The freewheeling and rambunctious sexuality of the Beats, on the other hand, was much more appealing. While most of my erstwhile classmates were cheering at football games and then rocking & rolling at post-game sock-hops, I and a small number of friends were using football games as an excuse to get out of the house and then go off, read poetry, fool around and ask ourselves if we ought to hit the road for either New York City or the West Coast. (We didn't; at least not in high school.)
Fascination with a multitude of hitherto unfamiliar cultural references, scattered through Beat prose and poetry, also led me to the discovery of a whole series of new domains - of which the most significant, for me, was probably that inhabited by the French "decadent" poets, especially Charles Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du Mal) (1857) and Arthur Rimbaud's Drunken Boat (Le Bateau Ivre) (1871) and Season in Hell (Une Saison en Enfer) (1873). Largely ignorant of their historical and political context, my attraction derived from their subjects, language and sense of humor. Reading them first in English translation, I could see how their visceral, poetic expressions of urban corruption, sex and death had resonated with the Beats. It was a desire to read them in the original that led me to choose French as my follow-up to Latin rather than German (the only other language being taught in my school) and certainly contributed to my later decision in college to spend a year in France.
Also as a result of curiosity piqued by references in the Beats, I was soon, to the dismay of my parents, buying LP's of Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane and Dave Brubeck instead of more Wagner, Stravinsky, Beethoven or Khachaturian. I didn't totally abandon my classical up-bringing, — I discovered that it was quite fun to make love to Maurice Ravel's Bolero — but more often we'd be making out to Miles' soundtrack for Ascenseur pour l'Échafaud, or trying to understand his Birth of the Cool, or just kicking back with Kinda Blue. The point here is that these encounters with Cool Jazz not only complemented the expanded awareness stimulated by reading the Beats and the French poets, but opened up a whole new musical domain whose exploration and enjoyment dramatically enriched my life.
Episode #4: In a course (I forget the title) during my undergraduate years at Antioch College, I was required to read some of the literary works of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. As a spin-off of the Beats I had already read, on my own, his novel Nausea (La Nausée) (1938) who's more hallucinatory moments, I was convinced must have inspired at least some of Burroughs's work. But reading his plays No Exit (Huis Clos) (1944) and The Flies (Les Mouches) (1943) had totally different impacts. The desperation of the doomed characters in No Exit who turned out to be totally dependent on others' judgments of their actions forced me to analyze, really for the first time I think, the way in which our own sense of self is so bound up with what is reflected back to us from people around us. That realization not only made me more aware of others reactions to me but also made me more sensitive to what I was reflecting back to others. On the other hand, the freedom of Orestes in The Flies, as opposed to the fear and stagnation of Zeus' worshippers brought me face to face with existentialism and the reality of making choices in the absence of certainty.
While reading No Exit led me to Sartre's analysis of "the other" ("l'autrui") in his Being and Nothingness (L'Etre et Le Neant) (1943), reading The Flies led me to the Christian Existentialism of the 19th Century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. In no more need of religion in my twenties than I had been earlier, it was not so much the Christian aspect of his existentialism that interested me as his willingness to recognize and act in the face of uncertainty. While Kierkegaard's Diary of a Seducer (1843) amused me, his treatment in Fear and Trembling (1843) of the biblical story of Abraham interested me more. Abraham believes God has ordered him to sacrifice his only son Isaac and despite his despair he is ready to do as he believes God demands. Of course, at the last minute, in the story, God intervenes and stops him, provides a ram for the sacrifice and praises Abraham for his faith. (Genesis 22:1-18) Kierkegaard's existentialist point here is that Abraham acts despite not being able to prove, in any way, that it is really God who asks. Faith is acting on belief despite unavoidable uncertainty about being right. Now despite my not being religious, Kierkegaard's insight struck me as every bit as powerful as Sartre's atheist embrace of the need to make decisions and act despite never being able to be certain that you are making the right choice. Moreover, it confirmed my belief that even though religious folks often claim to have an absolutely indisputable ground for their moral choices (God, the Ten Commandments, etc.), in reality we all make our moral, ethical, social, personal and political choices based on our best judgment - even though, if we are honest, we realize that we might be wrong. Recognizing this, of course, means abandoning any pretense of certainty, or any search for it, and accepting the contingency of today's judgment. It means refusing the temptation offered to people trying to figure out their lives by this or that dogma with claims to absolute truth.
In my case, in the early-1960s, it informed my thinking when trying to decide whether to join in the protests of the Civil Rights movement. I knew that I agreed with the protestors that racist discrimination should be abolished, but given the violence, jailings and possible long-term personal consequences was the cause worth the risks? I could stay on the sidelines with the excuse that I couldn't be certain participating was worth the risk. Or, I could act on my ethical beliefs and join in despite the uncertainty? I have no doubt that the thinking of Sartre and Kierkegaard buttressed my resolve to act. Later, after getting gassed, dragged, jailed, etc. I would decide I had done the right thing. But it was, in part, my appropriation of some elements of existentialist thinking, both atheist and Christian, that led to my putting my body on the line.
Episode #5: While a student in France, I studied French at Besançon and later the writings of 17th Century dramatist Pierre Corneille at Montpellier. During the weekends, in both places, I joined the Club Alpin Français and took up rock and mountain climbing. I also made time to date a French law student. After a couple of dates, during which she was forced to endure what she viewed as my backward views on gender, she presented me with a book and an ultimatum. The book was Simon de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (Le Deuxième Sexe) - a major work of French feminism. Even though I had read quite a bit of Sartre, I'd never read de Beauvoir despite their being friends and lovers and her being a well-known and respected author. That was about to change because the ultimatum was: either I read the book and report back my evaluation, or our dating was over. Well, the girl fascinated me, so I plunged in. By the time I had laboriously worked my way through several hundred pages, to my great surprise I found myself a convinced feminist - at least in theory. So much of what de Beauvoir had written rang true that I found myself at the beginning of an even more arduous and much longer term campaign to get beyond my male chauvinism and work out all the implications of realizing that women were not only good for sex, breeding and housekeeping but were human beings often every bit as interesting as men. One result of this bit of intensive re-education was that our dating continued and a few years later, we married.
Episode #6: All of the above was background to the situation I, like so many others, faced in the late 1960s and early 1970s due to the war being carried on by the US government against the independence movement in Vietnam. Under the Cold War rubric of anti-communism, the US government was sending thousands, then tens of thousands and ultimately millions of young Americans to fight and die in Southeast Asia. Faced with this situation, some didn't question, succumbed to an irrational patriotic rhetoric that portrayed Vietnamese nationalism as a threat to the United States and either volunteered or accepted to be drafted. Others did question and as the war unfolded, in all its brutality and devastation, as the death toll mounted, they dug in to the history of Vietnam and of US involvement with Vietnam and Southeast Asia more generally to attempt to figure out what was really going on behind all the rhetoric.
While a student at Montpellier, early in the US intervention and military buildup, I had met Vietnamese students who had been delighted to see the French military defeated but appalled to see the US military replace them. They asked me why the US government had not supported their bid for independence? Because at that time my major was biochemistry and in France I was totally into things French (but not the history of France in Indochina), I had no clue. When I returned to the US I went to work to find answers to their question.
What I found out disturbed me. Despite having materially supported Vietnamese nationalists against the Japanese during WWII, in the post-war period the US government had passively stood by while the French military and colonial businesses reasserted their control. When the nationalist movement defeated the French army, the US government moved in and became the new barrier to Vietnamese independence. Even before Daniel Ellsberg leaked The Pentagon Papers in 1971, it was clear to all who were paying attention that that not only had the government lied about what it was doing, over and over again, but that the whole war was part of a much wider counterinsurgency effort to stabilize Southeast Asia so that its population and resources could be exploited by multinational business.
With this understanding, buttressed by continuing, extensive research and reading I felt I had little choice; I joined the anti-Vietnam War movement and became deeply involved in turning my research into political interventions aimed at organizing people to stop the war. This preoccupation also had the effect of shifting my interests and academic major from biochemistry to economics - a field that seemed much more germane to understanding US foreign policy. So while a graduate student at Stanford, I studied economics and, entirely on my own because no professor would touch on the war in classes, the Vietnam War and the foreign policies that had produced it.
Episode #7 (and last): The culmination of graduate studies leading to a Ph.D. involves the writing and defense of a dissertation, a work of research and writing whose most basic characteristic must be to "make an original contribution to knowledge." My dissertation grew out of an anti-war, interdisciplinary study group that convened outside all formal academic programs to study the agrarian dimensions of U.S. policies in Vietnam and elsewhere in the world. While our studies initially covered many issues, including land reform, export agriculture, technological change and the ecological impact of each, we rather quickly focused in on what seemed to be at the core of US policy in the late 1960s: the so-called Green Revolution associated with the introduction of new, high yielding varieties of rice and wheat in various parts of the Third World, including Vietnam. Given my past work in the history of US foreign policy and economic development aid, my contribution to the group's work centered on the emergence of such technological change as the centerpiece of US policy initiatives. Over time, I was able to turn my research - that wound up tracing the evolution of US agrarian policies back into the 19th Century - into a dissertation that would satisfy the requirements for a Ph.D.
Being essentially a work of economic history, my dissertation was informed, and given coherence, by a particular theoretical perspective: the Marxist theory of the articulation of modes of production. This I had learned, once again not from any economics course, but from my own studies of Marxist economics and Marxist anthropology, especially the work of American economists Paul Sweezy and Paul Baran (the later had taught at Stanford until shortly before I arrived) and several French theorists including Maurice Godelier, Pierre Philippe Rey and Claude Meillasoux. The theory provided a framework for understanding how a capitalist mode of production could subsume and convert precapitalist modes into moments of itself. I was able to appropriate this perspective to understand how the Green Revolution consisted of the introduction of new agricultural technologies whose economic requirements (heavy industrial inputs and financing) encouraged the emergence of capitalist forms of agriculture while undermining precapitalist ones.
There was only one problem: although I successfully defended the dissertation and received my Ph.D., I became increasingly dissatisfied with the ability of the theory I was using to fully grasp the history that I had been studying. My work had grown out of my study of US foreign policy, but that policy had never been a one-sided phenomenon. It had always been shaped and reshaped by the challenges it faced - including the Vietnamese struggle for national independence and a whole gamut of rural insurgencies around the world. Indeed, in the course of my research I had seen, over and over again, how policies had been shaped to contain or counteract such unrest and reshaped in the wake of failures. But the theory I had used was very one-sided; it was all about capitalist expansion and the subsumption of everything that it encountered. The theory failed to provide a framework for grasping the very two-sided conflicts that I found everywhere I had looked.
As a result, after finishing my formal studies and receiving my Ph.D., I had to go back to the drawing boards. In this case that meant going behind the Marxist economists and anthropologists I had been studying to Marx himself. Did the problem, I wondered, lie in Marx or in how those I had been appropriating had interpreted and used his work? Although I had learned, in a graduate course on the history of economic thought, the usual critiques of Marx's labor theory of value, they didn't really speak to the issues raised by my dissertation research. So at the outset of my study of Marx I really didn't know what to expect.
To make a long (theoretical) story short, two years of work on the fundamentals of Marx's theory convinced me that indeed his work was more useful than any of the interpreters that I had marshaled in the organization of my dissertation. Not only did his theory focus our attention on the two-sided character of class conflict, but his theories of value, surplus value and alienation made those conflicts and their evolution comprehensible. The next step was to appropriate my new understanding to reframe my work on agrarian conflict and change. One byproduct of that reframing was a long article on "Food, Famine and International Crisis," published in 1977. Over time, of course, I would have to work out the implications of this new understanding for the grasp of any number of other kinds of conflicts throughout society. But those are other stories.