Four months ago on August 24th, I made the following notes in my journal as a rough outline of my planned book on Thoreau, now tentatively entitled The Upland Farm: Thoreau on the Art of Living (since there's already a book entitled Walking With Thoreau). Although in my previous thematic exploration I had envisioned the book as a set of four seasonal walks, at the moment I am pondering a journal entry for each month, along with one poem for each season. Here are the notes...
January: a description of the upland farm; quotes from Thoreau's letters to Harrison Blake; the progression from lowland farm (practical life) to the upland farm (transcendental experience) and the need to focus on both; beauty and use, heaven and earth, ideal and real, the transcendental and the natural; the meaning and role of philosophy in Thoreau's art of living; the seasons and their corresponding virtues in Thoreau's outlook (spring = trust / budding; summer = magnanimity / flowering; fall = independence / fruiting; winter = simplicity / dormancy).
February: the beginning of the agricultural year according to Varro; the tension between natural seasons and human seasons; the need of preparation and planning for life; sharpening your tools; the importance and role of intention in human activities; the soul as a garden or orchard, not a wild field or forest.
March: the budding of life; trust, truth, and tree as linguistic cognates (roots, solidity, steadfastness); the running of sap (as in New England maple trees); hope and the promise of spring; the arrival of the earliest spring birds; thawing and melting and the attendant messiness of youth.
Spring Poem: springing up and forward with vigor and energy and hope in the future; elasticity as a leitmotif in Thoreau's thinking; awakening to potential; planting and establishing yourself, becoming solid and rooted; growing up, greening up, drawing from the air and soil of your youth; the dawn and morning of life; correspondences between morning, youth, spring ("in the morning of my life, in the young days of the year, in the springtime of the day").
April: early growth; shielding yourself from outside pressures (cf. Randolph Bourne); storms and rains and late snows; the ice-out of rivers and lakes (final thawing); perhaps a reference to Patriots' Day in Concord (a personal revolution?); indoor nurturing of seedlings (preparation for planting, another instance of humans pushing the seasons forward); the role of home life and other early influences; trust as growing, hopeful, putting down roots (the opposite of independence as a fall virtue).
May: first planting; natural sprouting vs. human planting; the risk of late frosts (as at Walden in his second year there); May 6th the date of Thoreau's death; the shortness of life, the urgency of growth and creation; perfect days of late spring, trust in nature; the flowering of all things; bees and their busy-ness; nature and self pregnant with expectations; early adulthood.
June: first hot days; the turning of the seasons from spring to summer; tremendous growth; pruning and weeding and other forms of active cultivation in life (the upland farm is indeed a farm requiring intentional guidance - pure nature is not enough); flourishing; birth of the next generation; formation of fruits that will be harvested later in life.
Summer Poem: the longest day; midsummer; reflection forward and back to the winter solstice; complexity, profusion, complexity; yet an incipient turn toward simplicity; the great noon (as also in Nietzsche); generosity and benevolence of nature and humanity.
July: the high heat of summer; lightning and thunder (his play on Thor and Thoreau - his birthday on July 12th); magnanimity as greatness or nobility of soul; activity and ambition yet also days of enervation; constant work outside; the time of greatest "spending" of life energy; magnanimity = great hearted, high minded, having noble feelings, generous, giving; great-hearted activity (the opposite of simplicity as a winter virtue).
August: cooler days and longer nights; hint of autumn; first fruits of summer growth; making hay; looking forward to fall; transition from great-hearted ambition and activity to reflection and independence; a slowing down and mellowing of life; a sense of growing maturity.
September: growing independence; thoughts of harvesting the fruits of one's efforts; further mellowing, growing darkness, lengthening shadows, drier air; tinges of autumnal tints; harvests; departure of summer birds; emergence of a more reflective attitude to life; independence of thought and action as autonomy, self-governance, self-reliance, even heroism (the opposite of trust as a spring virtue).
Fall Poem: independence; reflection; meaning; dedication to greater knowledge and wisdom; beauty over usefulness; color, vividness, peak of one's character; differentiation; love of change and late growth; autumnal tints.
October: height of autumn; the actual fall of the leaves; high and peak color of the New England forest; migration of birds; great harvest and celebration of achievements; early frosts and Indian Summer; more night than day; slowing pace; the movement of life indoors again (warmth of home life); a looking back more than forward; memories of spring and summer; late fruits such as apples and nuts (a certain piquant nuttiness and savor to one's days).
November: snow and cold; little remaining green; great simplicity; reflection; increasing focus on essentials of life; recognition of coming dormancy; little time outdoors; rest from labors, repairing; sloughing off of error and experience.
December: end and beginning; summation of day/year/life; sleep and dormancy; time for choices and resolutions; making peace, dying well; celebration of life; segue to new year and renewed life (even if not one's own); ideals; essential simplicity as having few wants, having true needs, also being earnest and sincere (the opposite of great-hearted activity as a summer virtue).
Winter Poem: darkness and light; the darkest hour, yet a celebration of light that will return; cold but not coldness; an evergreen approach to life; learning from experience; life and death; rebirth; transcendence.
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").
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...
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 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.
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, dialogue, journal, and poetry 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 best. 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...
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