Newsletter: August 2021
If all goes according to plan, you’ll be receiving this monthly newsletter on the first of the month as usual, at which time I should be walking along the beach of the Tatchu Peninsula on Vancouver Island. I’m writing this on Wednesday, July 28th. Tomorrow morning, my friend Paul and I drive out to the village of Tahsis, from which we’ll take a water taxi out to the peninsula for five nights of hiking and camping. To my mind, Vancouver Island is one of the world’s great natural wonders, with mountains over 2000m in height, deep inlets cutting halfway through the width of the island, and some of the tallest trees in the world. On the Pacific coast of the island, it’s common to see whales, sea lions, seals, sea otters, and bald eagles. We also have to be vigilant about bears, wolves, and cougars.
I’m setting off into the wilderness at the conclusion of this summer’s course on the philosophy of love and friendship. Three groups, comprising 36 participants in total, read texts as ancient as Plato’s Symposium (4th century BCE) and as recent as Vida Yao’s “Grace and Alienation” (2020). We discussed romantic love, friendship, familial love, and universal loving-kindness, and scrutinized the different reasons we might have for loving as we do, as well as the benefits—and challenges—that love brings with it.
Sad to say, that’s the last of online philosophy for me in 2020. In mid-August I’m travelling to Sitka, Alaska, where I’ll spend the autumn teaching at Outer Coast, a young institution with a very exciting vision of what higher education might be. I spent two months teaching in Outer Coast’s inaugural year last autumn and I’m excited to deepen my relationship with the institution. I look forward to running another round of online courses in January, so watch this space for updates!
Although the Tatchu Peninsula hike is the big outdoor adventure for me this summer, I’ve enjoyed a number of day trips from Vancouver in July. The views from the mountains over the Howe Sound are breathtaking.
Since I was a teenager, I’ve enjoyed making music mixes. The earliest ones were on cassettes, where I’d carefully calculate the lengths of songs so as to fill both sides of the tape to within seconds of their limit (pro tip: a 90-minute cassette actually has forty-seven and a half minutes of playable time on each side). The mixes migrated to CD and more recently to Spotify as well. Since 2003, I’ve put together an annual mix of songs I like and shared it with friends—if you’re on Spotify, you can check out last year’s mix here.
There’s a real art to building mixes. It’s not just a matter of throwing together a bunch of good music. You also have to arrange them in an order that makes sense and where one song flows to the next. Along the way, you face all sorts of aesthetic choices. Do you open with a bang or do you start gently? If you’ve brought the energy level up with one song, is there another that can raise the level even further? And how do you slow things back down without killing the mood? Lovingly constructed, a mix can be a form of artistic expression, a kind of scrapbook of personal taste. When it’s shared between friends, it can make a very personal gift: here is something I love that I think that you might love as well.
As a teacher, I find syllabus construction to be somewhat similar to building a music mix. Building a syllabus, at its best, is also an act of love and a gift to those with whom it’s shared. Like a music mix, it’s constructed out of elements that I didn’t make myself but the assembly in uniquely my own. Where do you start and where do you end? How can you select elements that fit together harmoniously but also offer a broad range of ideas and styles of thought? How do you build a through-line that will make the course as a whole richer than the sum of its (hopefully already rich) parts?
This summer’s course on the philosophy of love and friendship was my first time teaching on this topic, so last spring I found myself unusually busy with the process of selection. As you can imagine, a great deal has been written about love over the centuries and I had to narrow my selection down to ten weeks.
Some choices were obvious: there was no way we were going to do a course on the philosophy of love without reading Plato’s Symposium. But other choices were trickier. There’s a rich discourse about love within recent Anglophone philosophy and a course built entirely from work in this area would have had a powerfully cumulative effect, as different readings would have been in direct conversation with one another. But I also wanted some representative breadth, which prompted me to include the Classic of Family Reverence and Buddhaghosa’s Path of Purification, representing very different intellectual traditions (Chinese and Theravāda Buddhist) and different aspects of love (filial piety and universal loving-kindness). On the contemporary front, I ruled out J. David Velleman’s influential “Love as a Moral Emotion” because it was long and difficult, but I opted to include Iris Murdoch’s equally long and difficult essay “The Idea of Perfection.” Why? Well, Murdoch harkened back to Plato, engaged critically with Sartre, and provided the groundwork for Vida Yao’s “Grace and Alienation,” with which we ended the course, so her paper offered a lot of resonance. But I could well have opted to include Velleman and exclude Murdoch. Ultimately it was a matter of judgment and taste. A large part of the fun of building a syllabus lies in these small choices that together add up to a very particular whole.
Like with a music mix, there’s pain in making the necessary cuts to make everything fit. But that’s also part of the pleasure: those tough decisions are where I really put my individual stamp on the final product. And it’s through those tough choices that the result becomes a product of love. A theme we encountered repeatedly in our recent course is that love is love of the particular, and that we come to see the particular features of our beloveds through close attention. In that respect, I can say I literally loved putting this course together and I look forward to building more courses in the future.