A few days ago, I posted my first discussion of Learning to Die: wisdom in the age of climate change (2015). In it, I talked about the first essay in this small book “The Mind of the Wild” by Robert Bringhurst. He said that in order to remain sane in this tumultuous time, we need to calibrate our minds by going into the wild. In the second essay, Jan Zwicker recommends practicing the Socratic virtues. Roy Scranton in his Learning to Die: reflections on the end of a civilization (2015) depends on cultural narrative (see earlier posts 115journals.com) and practicing a thoughtful pause before re-tweeting or otherwise passing on hysterical news., contemplative practice and compassion
Most of us, even if we have not had to read Plato’s account of the life of Socrates, know that he administered his own execution by drinking hemlock, subsequent to being found to be an enemy of the state. Jan Zwicker calls her essay “A Ship from Delos”. This ship is, they say the tribute ship that Theseus sailed to Crete, which sails in memorium of the saving of Athens. It sailed away decorated for celebration and no execution can take place until it returns. It has been sighted. Socrates must die.
Zwicker says, “Humans collectively are now in Socrates’ position: the ship with black sails has been sighted.” She goes on to detail facts that show no adequate preparation has been put in place to avoid the ‘catastrophic global ecological collapse ..on the horizon’. (43) Zwicker does not advice ‘duck and cover’ or even ‘shelter in place’. She recommends we each become an ‘excellent human being’ by cultivating Socrates 4 virtues, amending the list to 5 to be clear. As Zwicker interprets them, they are knowing what’s what – with humility, courage, self-control, justice and compassion. Roy Scranton would certainly agree with self-control, while his cultural heritage idea encompasses the others.
IMO as they say on Twitter, knowing what’s what has been a bad problem here in the U.S. and Canada for the last several years. And, yes, sorry, this small country to your north has sheltered Trumpers and anti-maskers, Proud Boys and Jordan Peterson, although they may not have done the same degree of harm. We have only about 24,000 dead of Covid and no assault on the Parliament Building in Ottawa.
The common theme, I have found in the 2 Learning to Die books and in The Mushroom at the End of the World: on the possibility of life in capitalist ruins by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (2015) is that they require not more recycling or technical progress, but more character building, more attention so we can endure the future with a measure of grace. (The mushroom is the matsutake, Japan’s favourite.)
The heart of Plato’s portrait of Socrates is ‘How are We to Die?’ Socrates is affable and ironic and demonstrates the 4 -really 5 – virtues that make an excellent man. He is not grieving, although he has compassion for the students he is leaving behind, who certainly are. In the David painting above, Socrates is reaching for the poisoned cup willingly despite his unjust conviction.
The virtues are those that we need at this moment as a pandemic and a serious threat to democracy need to be handled. Of course, global warming needs to be handled as well but this book, like the others I have mentioned is based on the idea that climate change is like Covid-19 in March 2020. It is already too late. The trend is downward toward catastrophe. Our feeble actions may produce some improvement but, as we know 550,000 Americans and about 24,000 Canadians have already died. It is possible we are facing a third wave from variants. Similarly, civilization as we know it is doomed and possibly the race itself. The earth may survive without us. These effects are approaching more quickly than we thought they would. How are we to die?
We die well when we have cultivate the virtues: sophia– wisdom but better translated as knowing what’s what, having the savvy of a person of affairs, yet recognizing there is much we do not know. It is the robust willingness to question belief, to pause as Roy Scranton advised us before we retweet the latest scandal and take the time to question before we magnify an ill-founded lie.
Courage is not just manly spirit. It is the morality and strength required to be aware and not let opinion pass as understanding. We will need physical courage to handle the pain and hardship of civic strife, civil wars, mob violence, death tolls from disaster and pandemic.
Humility is a deep unconcern for the fate of the self. Self-control means not wanting more than enough. Some of us in the economic downturns, such as Covid is giving us, have had that thrashed out of us by events.
Justice, living with the hierarchy of the soul in mind: intelligent governing, warrior safe-keeping and skilled application of virtue, a workmanlike excellence. Contemplative practice works to make us aware of the world and our self.
Compassion is other than a contempt for fear, which leads to denial and and anxiety. Compassion listens and provides companionship in suffering. Awareness of grim truth does not preclude hope. (As I advance into old, old age, which starts at 85, I see that wallowing in despair is not a saving grace. A 95-year-old retired priest once assured me, he felt as if he were going to start kindergarten any day.) Hope involves humility: earth is prodigious and in many ways still very much alive. Our present beauty might fade, but there are other kinds of beauty.
The writer quotes from Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace,”The poet produces what is beautiful by fixing attention onto something real… Love, awareness and the desire to respond: these are the distinguishable but inseparable aspects of genuine intelligence.” Later, she is quoted as saying that “prayer is nothing other than the absolutely unmixed attention.”
I never watch CNN now. I gave it up because I can now see such intelligence at work, but for over four-years, like many other Canadians I fixed unmixed attention on the failing democracy to the south. Now I have time to look at Global warming with clearer eyes and to acknowledge responsibility. Weil tells us that our refusal to do so blocks our grief at what’s to come.
“Mourning returns the soul to the community… When we point with our hearts to what we have destroyed, to our addictions and to our self-deception about our addictions”, we are freed into a cleansing grief.
Every family has sayings of wit and wisdom: “Is this where your cookies live?” 3-yr-old English boy, “Not my guinea pig,” one small girl to her sister when their pet dropped dead, “Gee, Lenny, it’s all f—ed up,” 2-yr-old gazing into the engine of a stalled car. I have a new one my family will have to learn. It is at the end of “A Ship to Delos” (71). It is the answer to what did the pilot say as he realized his plane was going to crash?