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Hello everyone, and happy new year!
If all goes according to plan, you’re receiving this newsletter while I’m far away from any internet connection. The plan (I say, writing this in late December) is to hike up to Garibaldi Lake with a friend on New Year’s Eve and greet 2023 from a tent. This will be my first foray into winter camping and, with a touch of trepidation, I’m very much looking forward to it!
I’ll be starting 2023 with two new adventures. One, which subscribers to this mailing list will have heard about, is my online course on humans and animals. Both sessions of the course are very close to fully booked, so I encourage you to sign up soon if you’re interested in joining. Alternatively, my self-guided course, “An Introduction to Philosophy in Ten Dangerous Ideas,” is available to take at your own pace and on your own schedule. In case you’re looking for a new year’s resolution…
The other adventure begins around the same time—I’ll be driving off to eastern California to teach for a semester at Deep Springs College. Deep Springs is a remarkable institution—a working ranch that doubles as an elite two-year liberal arts college. Students work the ranch, participate in advanced academic seminars, and take leadership roles in governing the institution. I first learned about Deep Springs in my third year of undergraduate study at Harvard, when a cohort of cowboy-scholars arrived as transfer students. I wish I’d known about the place a few years sooner and could have applied myself. But I’m thrilled to get a chance to get to know the place as faculty.
One feature of student self-government at Deep Springs is that they vote on what course they want me to teach, based on a selection of options I present to them. Conveniently enough, they voted for a course on animals as well, so I’ll be living alongside livestock and talking about animals both in person and online.
It feels an age ago but in fact it’s been just over two weeks since we finished the autumn online course on freedom. We wrapped things up in style (or in Gangnam style) with a discussion of Nietzsche’s ideal of the “free spirit.”
Since then, I’ve caught up with friends and family and celebrated Christmas in the same house that Santa visited back when I was a child. I also managed to take a couple days off for a mini writing retreat on Galiano Island, where I lived for a good chunk of 2020 and 2021. A walk through the snow offered a poignant reminder to bend rather than break.
My upcoming course on humans and animals is billed as a “philosophy” course but nearly a third of the course content is literature. What gives? Well, in general I’m of the view that works of literature can be sites of philosophical reflection. But I think there’s a particular connection between animals and literature. Both of them serve as foils for a certain self-image that philosophy tries to cultivate.
Plato’s Republic bears out this point. The tenth and final book of the Republic contains a notorious attack on poetry in which Socrates (Plato’s mouthpiece in the dialogue) argues for the banishment of poetry from his ideal republic. Socrates presents poetry—a term intended broadly enough to encompass what we mean by “literature”—as the false counterpart to philosophy. Poetry appeals to our emotions whereas philosophy appeals to reason. Poets have no real knowledge of the things they describe whereas philosophy anchors itself to the highest knowledge. Socrates regards poets as we might regard alchemists, trading in hearsay and mystification, while seeing philosophers as chemists, using sound and rational methods to get to the truth.
Plato prepares us for this argument earlier in the Republic. In Book 4, he argues that the human soul is composed of three parts. The appetitive part of the soul desires satisfaction of its bodily appetites—primarily food, drink, and sex. The spirited part of the soul desires honour and explodes in anger and outrage when its honour is slighted. The rational part of the soul desires knowledge and truth.
This theory of a tripartite soul is an early attempt to explain inner conflict. If you both want something and don’t want it—an experience you might be grappling with in the form of abstemious new year’s resolutions—different parts of you must be pulling you in different directions. In a well-ordered soul, Plato maintains, the rational part wins out. When our appetites run riot, our lives descend into chaos.
Likewise, in a well-ordered state, philosophy should govern—hence Plato’s famous notion of the philosopher-king. Philosophy appeals to the rational part of the soul, whereas poetry appeals to our nonrational parts. Hence the banishment of poetry from the ideal republic—it’s simply a goad to our lower impulses.
Plato spells out his theory of a tripartite soul in analogy with animals. The rational part of the soul takes the shape of a man, the spirited part that of a lion, and the appetitive part is the kind of multi-headed beast you find in Greek myths, pulling in all different directions. As long as the human, rational part of us is in control, everything remains in order. But when the “beast within” runs free, all hell breaks loose. (Mary Midgley, whom we’ll read in my online course, has stern words for Plato’s myth of the “beast within.”)
As Plato frames it, we’re part human and part non-human animal—we’re “rational animals,” to borrow Aristotle’s phrase. Plato means this seriously. Animals have bodily desires and some at least are spirited. What makes us different from all the other animals is that crowning rational capacity that’s distinctively human.
That means if we don’t take heed of reason, we’re no different from animals. The lover of food and drink and the lover of poetry have this in common: they’re seduced by our animal nature away from our distinctively human potential.
Starting with Plato, philosophy has systematically marginalized both literature and animals as beneath the dignity that philosophy has established for humankind. (From the Greeks to the present, you find a parallel marginalization of women—they, too, are emotion-driven, deficient in reason, and must be subordinated to the rational guidance of men.) It’s interesting to find that the philosophers who place the highest stock in the powers of reason—figures like Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, or Kant—tend to be dismissive of non-human animals. Thinkers more critical of philosophy’s emphasis on human rationality—Nietzsche and Derrida, Plutarch and Montaigne—are more inclined to hold animals in higher esteem.
Here’s another reason some philosophers don’t take kindly to being likened to animals. We share with animals a bodily existence, and bodies are vulnerable: to sickness, to injury, to death. To the extent that we acknowledge our kinship with other animals, we acknowledge that essential vulnerability.
There’s a venerable tradition in philosophy—again, with Plato in the front rank—of trying to reason our way out of this vulnerability. Anything that’s subject to change or destruction, vulnerable to forces beyond our control, can’t be the real self. That self—the rational mind, the Stoic power of choice, the immortal soul—can’t be touched by worldly turmoil. If you experience yourself as vulnerable, that’s just because you identify with the wrong part of yourself.
A lot of the best literature, by contrast—and this very much includes the epic poetry and tragic drama that Plato took to be his main adversaries—fixates on human vulnerability, on how chance governs our lives and nothing can safeguard our lasting happiness. The two literary authors I’ve included in my course, Franz Kafka and J. M. Coetzee, write with a keen sense of the creaturliness of human existence, and its attendant vulnerability.
It’s easier nowadays than in ancient Greece to forget that we’re frail, bodily creatures. Many of us live in cities that are built to cater to our needs, with stocked supermarkets, heated homes, and not a marauding pack of wolves in sight. I like keeping my body safe, which is why I’m glad to take top-notch camping gear out into the backwoods. But part of what I love about being out there is the reminder it brings that I’m an embodied creature whose life is firmly rooted to this earth.
May you all have a happy start to 2023.