One Small Voice: The Journal of Peter Saint-Andre


Progressive Similarity

2014-12-14

Lately I've been listening a lot to the music of the a cappella group Pentatonix. On the surface, their music is stylistically not the kind of thing I typically like - I very much prefer Bach, Ellington, and Yes to recent pop.

Yet their music, despite its pop roots, has a strongly progressive element: the arrangements are adventuresome, the center of musical focus changes throughout each song from one voice to another, each person in the group is a virtuoso, etc. I don't know if there's a genre of progressive a capella (progcapella?), but if not then they're founding it.

Reflecting on why I like Pentatonix has led me to think about the similarities between progressive music across different styles. Clearly my favorite band, Yes, is one of the greatest progressive rock groups. I also love the music of Hot Rize, which was a kind of progressive bluegrass outfit (currently reunited, albeit without their original and very progressive guitar player, Charles Sawtelle, who passed away some years ago). I'm a fan of progressive folk groups like Fairport Convention, Mellow Candle, and Steeleye Span. Going back further, the Duke Ellington Orchestra can be seen as a progressive swing band (compare their orchestrations and compositions to more conventional swing bands of the time).

To sample the more progressive side of Pentatonix, I'd recommend especially their songs "I Need Your Love" and "Daft Punk" (they're quite popular on YouTube so their videos are easy to find). While listening, keep in mind that they don't play any instruments - all the sounds are produced by the singers, including the crazy percussion and synthesizer sounds from beatboxer Kevin Olusola (for example at the two-minute mark of "Love Again").


My Intellectual History, Part III

2014-12-06

It seems that every once in a while on December 6th, I write a journal entry about the intellectual path I'm travelling in this all-too-short life. The previous installments in this series were written on December 6th, 1989 and December 6th, 1999. It's been fifteen years since the last post, so there's a lot of ground to cover! Like 1500 blog posts, 4 books, a bunch of meaningful friendships, and a big phase of my career. (And no, there isn't any particular significance to December 6th, it just happens to have worked out that way.)

One significant influence on my subsequent mental evolution has been my involvement with the open-source community, which began in earnest in November of 1999 when I started contributing to the Jabber instant messaging project. That influence has taken two primary forms. First, ever so slowly I became convinced that ideas cannot be owned and that the entire apparatus of copyright is misguided (see my essays Who's Afraid of the Public Domain? and What Is Copyright?). Second, I have experienced first-hand the effectiveness of decentralized and completely voluntary cooperation, which has greatly affected my outlook on social, economic, and political matters.

Related to my work with Jabber has been my experience with three amazing teams: the original jabber.org dev team (Jeremie, Temas, Dizzy, Eliot, Ryan, Justin, Julian, and of course our dear departed Peter Millard); the Jabber Inc. team, which went through so many trials and triumphs together in our 8 years as a startup company; and now the &yet team, from whom and with whom I have learned so much already (looking forward to many more years together!). Although perhaps once I thought that all achievement was purely individual, working in these teams has helped me realize every day that we can do so much more together than we can do apart. The insights of team-oriented thinkers such as Dee Hock have been an important influence on me in this domain of my life.

Another major thread that I pursued for about five years (roughly 2002-2007) was an in-depth investigation of two historical questions that have long puzzled me: (1) how did the modern world emerge? and (2) what is the nature of American culture? These are huge topics and I cannot claim to have scholarly knowledge about either of them. However, through a great deal of reading I learned enough about each one to understand that the traditional (and, especially, Randian) accounts of these phenomena are over-simplified. I presented the essence of my conclusions in two essays that I published through the Libertarian Alliance in the UK: Ayn Rand and the Ascent of Man and Ayn Rand and American Culture.

Those two essays also comprise part of my coming-to-terms with Ayn Rand, reflected more broadly in two books: Randian Reflections (33 essays written between 1993 and 2009) and The Tao of Roark (started much earlier but mostly written between 2008 and 2012). Having thus let go of the ladder upon which I had climbed to that point in my intellectual existence, I found myself liberated for much more wide-ranging explorations.

The first field I explored was the thought of Epicurus, whom I had read a bit back in college but then mostly forgotten. Inspired by a blog comment from my friend Manuel, I decided to translate the surviving quotations from Epicurus on ethics and happiness, which I did from 2008 to 2011. (I have yet to translate various ancient quotes about Epicurus from other writers, although I plan to do that too and publish the results under the title Epicurus on the Good Life.) Because Epicurus is so often misunderstood, and because I found myself more and more fascinated by him as I translated his thoughts from Greek into English, I decided to compose a brief dialogue about his ideas, entitled Letters on Happiness (written 2012-2013).

I now see The Tao of Roark and Letters on Happiness as two parts of a six-movement "eudaimonia suite" of short books on happiness, which together will comprise my lifelong philosophy project. The other four movements will be about Thoreau, Nietzsche, Aristotle, and Lao Tzu. Although I had been preparing to work on the Nietzsche book next (in the form of a cycle of philosophical poems), earlier this year I decided to change course and write the Thoreau book first, specifically in time for the Thoreau bicentennial on July 12, 2017. I am now deep into research on Thoreau, having read all of his published works except the massive Journal (which I am slowly working through in my usual manner).

As I absorb the insights of each of these thinkers and keep on living and growing, I find that my outlook on life changes in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I expect to have much more to share on that score between now and the next installment of this very occasional series...


Why I Am Not a Writer

2014-10-02

For several years, my Twitter profile has identified me thus: "Technologist. Writer. Musician." Yet I've come to realize that I'm not a writer. Oh, I do write on occasion and I'm fairly good at it, but I don't write every day or even every week like real writers do.

Although I've become less comfortable with self-identifying as a writer, I've become more comfortable with self-identifying as a philosopher (in the sense of a seeker after wisdom). Thinking and reflecting on my experience is something that I do every day, even if it sometimes takes years for those insights to appear in writing. So now it's: "Technologist. Musician. Philosopher."


The Internet Is Dead, Long Live the Internet

2014-09-04

The Internet is in trouble. In fact, the Internet as we knew and loved it is dead and gone. I gave a talk about that in July at TriConf in Richland, Washington. Thanks to the folks at JK Productions, you can now watch the talk for free on Vimeo.


An Aristotelian Tangent

2014-09-03

Although I am deep into absorbing Thoreau (currently reading Wild Fruits and his Journal), I continue to ponder some of the other writing projects I have on the back burner. Of late I've had a few stray thoughts about Aristotle. Most simply, what form shall I impart to my book about his ethical philosophy, and what shall I entitle it? Having explored, by then, the literary-philosophical forms of manifesto (even sermon?), dialogue, journal, and poetry cycle for my books about Rand, Epicurus, Thoreau, and Nietzsche, what will be left? For those aware of the Aristotelian tradition, the commentary form comes quickly to mind. Not that I (slight scholar that I am) can hope to approach the great commentaries of Averroes or Aquinas; but perhaps an epitome is within my reach, especially since that's consistent with my appreciation for short books (none of the volumes in my lifelong philosophy project will be more than 60 pages or so).

Naturally, in such a brief summary it is impossible to do justice to the full breadth of a thinker's complete philosophy, so I'll need to focus on the core of it. When it comes to Aristotle's ethics, I've been searching for a concise phrase that captures the essence. One possibility is a line from Book II of the Eudemian Ethics: "ἔργον ἂν εἴη τῆς ἀρετῆς ζωὴ σπουδαία". Paraphrasing slightly: a worthy life is the work of the soul at its highest. Several key concepts are here: philosophy as something concerned above all with the practice of life; living as a form of characteristic activity or even work; goodness as naturalistic excellence instead of moralistic virtue; the noblest and highest activity as expressive of the distinctively human level of psychological potential; life as something to be taken seriously; ethics as a search for methods of living the best possible human life.

Thus a title suggests itself: Living in Earnest or, perhaps, A Worthy Life (the latter ties in well with Aristotle's emphasis on the human way of life as essentially social, not solitary).

It will likely be five or more years before I start the in-depth research required to summarize all of Aristotle's ethical philosophy in 60 pages or less, but I like the general idea I've sketched out here. Much more to come after I've written my books on Thoreau and Nietzsche...


Thoreau and the Seasons of Man

2014-07-05

This evening I finished reading Thoreau's first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Toward the very end, he writes as follows:

In summer we live out of doors, and have only impulses and feelings, which are all for action, and must wait commonly for the stillness and longer nights of autumn and winter before any thought will subside; we are sensible that behind the rustling leaves, and the stacks of grain, and the bare clusters of the grape, there is the field of a wholly new life, which no man has lived; that even this earth was made for more mysterious and nobler inhabitants than men and women. In the hues of October sunsets, we see the portals to other mansions than those which we occupy, not far off geographically.

[...]

The moon no longer reflects the day, but rises to her absolute rule, and the husbandman and hunter acknowledge her for their mistress. Asters and golden-rods reign along the way, and the life-everlasting withers not. The fields are reaped and shorn of their pride, but an inward verdure still crowns them. The thistle scatters its down on the pool, and yellow leaves clothe the vine, and naught disturbs the serious life of men. But behind the sheaves, and under the sod, there lurks a ripe fruit, which the reapers have not gathered, the true harvest of the year, which it bears forever, annually watering and maturing it, and man never severs the stalk which bears this palatable fruit.

I see a connection to a paragraph (previously quoted) from one of his Letters to Harrison Blake:

Some absorbing employment on your higher ground,—your upland farm,—whither no cart-path leads, but where you mount alone with your hoe,—where the life everlasting grows; there you raise a crop which needs not to be brought down into the valley to a market; which you barter for heavenly products.

Thoreau, simultaneously naturalist and transcendentalist, always perceives the possibility of living a higher life, even partaking in moments of immortality ("the life everlasting"), as hinted in the same section of A Week:

Sometimes a mortal feels in himself Nature, not his Father but his Mother stirs within him, and he becomes immortal with her immortality. From time to time she claims kindredship with us, and some globule from her veins steals up into our own.

For Thoreau, such thoughts are often connected with autumn. His essay Autumnal Tints is fascinating and relevant here. He associates the fall of the year and the vibrant colors of a New England autumn with a ripening of existence, a certain mellowness and stronger flavor to life, "a late and perfect maturity", "an Indian-summer serenity", an appreciation of beauty separate from usefulness, the commencing of "a more independent and individual existence".

One of my favorite quotes from Walden is this:

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

I'm starting to think of those four virtues as intimately associated with the four seasons.

As hinted in Autumnal Tints, in the time of one's late and perfect maturity one begins to lead a spiritually more "independent and individual existence"—to grow above and beyond the societal soil in which one was planted—to reflect upon one's experience and through that reflection to become more self-reliant. Thus fall is most closely associated in Thoreau's philosophy with independence.

Summer, by contrast, is a season in which we "are all for action"—a time of high flourishing, great-hearted ambition, riotous growth, fast progress, overflowing life—in a word, with magnanimity in its original sense of greatness of soul or enhanced liveliness.

As the foundation and precursor for such flourishing, spring is a time of being planted in the soil of one's family and society, of putting roots down into that soil, of gaining strength for one's greatest growth, of achieving solidity and structure in one's identity—of hope and trust in the future. Thoreau, ever mindful of etymology, could not have been unaware that trust, truth, and tree are cognate terms whose root meaning is strength, steadfastness, loyalty, constancy, solidity.

Of winter, Thoreau observed: "The wonderful purity of nature at this season is a most pleasing fact." (A Winter Walk.) "A cold and searching wind drives away all contagion, and nothing can withstand it but what has a virtue in it, and accordingly, whatever we meet with in cold and bleak places, as the tops of mountains, we respect for a sort of sturdy innocence, a Puritan toughness. All things beside seem to be called in for shelter, and what stays out must be part of the original frame of the universe, and of such valor as God himself. It is invigorating to breathe the cleansed air. Its greater fineness and purity are visible to the eye, and we would fain stay out long and late, that the gales may sigh through us, too, as through the leafless trees, and fit us for the winter,—as if we hoped so to borrow some pure and steadfast virtue, which will stead us in all seasons." Existence is stripped to its essentials, to its simplest elements.

Thus I'm beginning to feel my way along to a motif that might animate Walking With Thoreau: four seasonal walks to Thoreau's upland farm, where spring is about trust, summer about magnanimity, fall about independence, and winter about simplicity.

All this is subject to change, of course, as I read The Maine Woods, Walden, and his monumental Journals.


For older entries, check the archive. To track changes, follow the feed.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal