Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Sunday, December 14, 2014

NIGHT THOUGHTS


one of the many curious characteristics of human beings is that we find it easier to bear adversity when we discover that others are similarly afflicted, especially so when what is besetting us has a name.  i am at the moment suffering from two minor afflictions, one physical and the other spiritual, each of which has been given a title, and somehow, that fact makes them bearable.  the physical problem is the persistent pain in my left arm, which, i am told by the doctors whom i have consulted, is called 'tennis elbow.'  [never mind that i do not play tennis, and would use my right arm if i did.  when i objected to the label, one doctor replied breezily, 'oh, ninety percent of the people who come to see us with tennis elbow don't play tennis.']  inasmuch as the specialist who  will give me an injection of cortisone under ultra-sound cannot see me until january 13th, i plan tomorrow to call a 'rolfer' [at the suggestion of my son ] to see whether he can help.

the spiritual problem is a general eeyore-like gloominess that comes over me each year as christmas approaches and displaces my customary tigger-ishness.  i associate this with the end of the academic year and the approach of the holidays with their interminable three-day weekends, but in all likelihood i am reacting in a primordial manner to the shortening of the daylight hours, which reach their nadir with the winter solstice, roughly on december 21st.  i think i was well into my seventies before i discovered that this affliction too has a name -- 'seasonal affective disorder,' or s.a.d.  how comforting that discovery was.  the mere fact of the name, i feel, gives me leave to wallow in my funk, cosseting myself with chocolate ice cream from the parlor across the street, or lying slugabed until five-thirty or even six in the morning.

this year, my s.a.d. has been made more intense by such unrelated matters as the mid-term defeats and the release of the congressional report on official united states torture.  last night, as i lay awake, kept from sleep by the physical pain and kept from pleasant daydreams by my spiritual distress, i distracted myself by composing in my head a lengthy meditation on an odd fact about my life that has long posed for me a puzzle.  this blog post, even more self-referential than is my custom, is a report of that meditation.

the puzzle quite simply is this:  how am i to think about the fact that neither i nor my immediate family, for almost a century, has been adversely affected in our personal lives by the flood of terrible things that have happened to our country and that our country has chosen deliberately to do?  needless to say , i am grateful that we have been spared, but our immunity gives to those evils, for me, a hypothetical or merely conceptual character, as though i were contemplating the problems of some alternative world.  since i have for much of my adult life been a passionately engaged ideologue, it seems to me, how shall i say it, inappropriate that none of the evils against  which i have railed have affected me personally.  the incongruity is made all the worse by my embrace of karl marx's scorn for what he and engels called 'utopian socialism,' the speculations about better societies ungrounded in the realities of this one.

my father was too young to be called to serve in the first world war, and too old to serve in the second.  indeed, only one person in my extended family, a very distant cousin named joe singer, spent any time in uniform before i enlisted in the massachusetts national guard in 1957.  [joe sat out the war on a weather station in burma, and as a little boy, i contributed to the war effort by writing v-mail letters to him.]  my father went to work as a substitute teacher in the new york city school system upon receiving his master's degree from columbia, and from that time, roughly 1924, until his retirement from that same school system in the late sixties his employment was never in doubt.  because he came from a socialist family, he never invested in the stock market, a fact of which he was very proud, so the crash of '29 did not touch him.  i was born in 1933, in the depths of the great depression, but nothing in the circumstances of my family suggested that the country was being torn apart by drought and unemployment, by economic misery more severe than it had ever known.  my own working life as a college professor coincided with a period in american history during which tenure was secure and virtually unbreakable.  tenure is a recent phenomenon in academia, a post-world war two phenomenon really, and it is now under an assault that will probably destroy it at all but the elite rich private institutions.  but from 1964, when i was hired as a tenured associate professor at columbia university, until 2008, when i retired from a tenured professorship at the university of massachusetts, my employment was absolutely secure, regardless of how far i strayed from the field in which i had earned my doctorate or how controversial were the views i expressed.  in america, only independent wealth or ordination in the roman catholic church offer comparable security.

the raging inflation of the 1970's, which wreaked havoc with many lives, served simply to reduce the real economic burden of my mortgage, and inasmuch as my salary more or less kept pace with the official consumer price index, the net effect on my financial status was positive.  the great recession of the past six years has indeed reduced the market value of the condominium in which i now live, but since i plan to stay here until i die, and my sons are both quite successful on their own, that paper loss will merely reduce somewhat their inheritance when i die.

i am white, not black, so i have been personally untouched by the deeply rooted systemic racial discrimination and oppression on which this country is built [save to benefit silently and invisibly from it, of course.]  although i am nominally jewish, i entered the academy just as the long-established discrimination against jews subsided. 

in short, i and my family have lived charmed lives in a world awash in ugliness.  since there is a voice in my head that is constantly challenging me to justify myself -- have i worked hard enough, have i done what i ought to help those less fortunate than myself, what have i done lately -- i cannot honestly say that this completely unearned good fortune gives me great comfort.  but it is a fact.

those of my actions that others might view as supererogatory have in truth been more self- than other-regarding.  i spoke out against nuclear weapons because i enjoyed the attention it brought me.  i raised money for students in south africa because it flattered me to be received so warmly when i traveled there to meet the students who had received the scholarships.  there were some who were so foolish as to imagine that i left the philosophy department at umass to join the afro-american studies department out of some moral conviction, but the simple truth is that i, like most philosophers, care more about sheer intelligence than anything else, and when i noticed that the members of the afro-am department were, on average, smarter than the members of the philosophy department, the decision was a no-brainer.

it was about at this time that the acetaminophen finally eased the elbow pain, and i drifted off to sleep. 

10 comments:

Derek said...

I'll speak to the last point, since it's been a thought on my mind as of late.

I recently finished reading a selection of Cicero's letters, going through the transition from Roman Republic to Roman Empire. Cicero, in his private correspondence, undeniably comes across as a vain man obsessed with his own glory; he spends years waiting to be rewarded a Roman triumph for the successes of his term as governor, and to the end of his days reminds people endlessly of his suppression of a conspiracy during his term as consul years before.

Yet his successes as consul and governor were real; he really did take decisive action to stop the conspiracy, and he really was a frugal, considerate, intelligent governor respected by those he governed. He was over-proud of his skills as orator, but he was indeed an incredible orator. He was obsessed with his good reputation in Rome, but he also earned it, at times even because he was so obsessed with it; faced with temptation, he would do the right thing because he had written to the public about doing the right thing, so how could he now do otherwise?

What is the point? Cicero was a great man, not because he was a perfect human being, but because he did what he saw he should do, in spite of and even sometimes through his human weaknesses. His weaknesses make him more human, more understandable, and in a way make his good choices that much more impressive; someone who is totally morally perfect would probably look almost inhuman to us. The question isn't whether you are every moment aware of your privilege, always giving every penny you can to fight for justice, sacrificing yourself on a daily basis; one can't really expect that of human beings, given what we are. The question is: given what you see about you, do you pursue the good? Sure, Aristotle's ideal of the magnanimous man only does what is good because it is good, free of temptation, but we're human, not divine.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Derek, thank you. I found your long, thoughtful, and elegant comment very wise and helpful. I have never been as enamored of the Romans as I am of the Greeks, I confess, but perhaps in my maturity I should reconsider my intellectual allegiances. I find a great deal of truth in what you have written. Again, thank you.

Michael said...

This is a really lovely meditation on how luck and privilege can have long term affects on a life. Thank you.

I do have a question about your experience as a Jew. My grandparents come from the generation between yours and your father's (my grandfather fought in the second world war)and my impression in talking with them was always that their experiences with antisemitism (in America, anyway) were less systematic, and more personal. Friends whose parents disapproved of them, parties they weren't invited to, and so on. (It may have helped that they went to Brooklyn College and NYU, respectively, and didn't have to navigate through the quota systems some of the Ivies had, but I don't know enough about that to comment.)

I guess my question, then, is whether you think attitudes really changed so quickly that such prejudices become noticeably less public, or is this again just another example of luck?

Richard said...

About that seasonal affective disorder: I have found that Vitamin D3 helps. For the election and the congressional torture report, I recommend alcohol.

Franz said...

This evening I took my teenage son to see the film "The Good Lie", a fictional account about orphan siblings who were among the Sudanese Lost Boys. Their experience in walking hundreds of miles to escape their war-torn country, living in a refugee camp for thirteen years until they were able to come to America as refugees, and their subsequent difficult adjustment to life in Kansas City, reminded me how great a role luck and contingency play in our lives. For no reason some good people suffer undeserved evils while other good people enjoy undeserved good fortune.

I reminded my son that my parents experienced both. In the first half of his life my father lived in the Soviet Union and was arrested twice and thrown into prison. He managed to escape and take his family to Berlin just in time to have bombs fall on the city. When he brought his family to the United States as refugees, he had the good fortune to arrive when even severely undereducated immigrants could eventually become financially independent, even under the sunny skies of a paradisian Los Angeles that was still affordable to live in. Though the first few years were often difficult, the second half of his life was almost as sunny as the skies he lived under.

We were lucky. I still have cousins in Ukraine who are not so lucky.

My point is that, as you acknowledge, much of our circumstances are not totally of our own doing. The appropriate response when life hands us lemonade instead of dry, juiceless lemons is not guilt but gratitude.

My father never felt guilty over his good fortune. He taught me that even during the extended period of time in which I was underemployed and depressed I still had a better life and better prospects than my cousins, and for that I was, and am, grateful.

Franz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt said...

I cannot offer any help with the deep issues, but can offer some advice on the sore elbow. I have had such a problem for a while. Some advice I was given made a huge difference. The advice: take a strong rubber band, and put it around your hand, across the palm. You may have to loop it around more than once to get enough tension. Now, close your fingers under the rubber band, and then open them, pulling back on the band each time as you open the hand. The theory behind this is that the pain in the elbow is caused by the muscles in the arm being stronger on one side than the other, putting stress on the tendons. This will strengthen the other muscles, helping the tendons. I don't know if that's right, but doing this for a few minutes a day for a few weeks almost completely eliminated what had been modestly sever pain that had lasted for years. I hope it will work for you.

Magpie said...

Prof. Wolff

Perhaps the personal examples of Marx and Engels could provide some consolation in your spiritual distress: neither men was born poor. Engels himself, unlike Marx, was never poor and both ended their lives relatively well-off.

If you remember the quote from Das Kapital, you'll see that it needs not be applied only to capitalists and landlords:

"My standing point, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them".

For better or worse, we are all product of our environment.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

a very wise series of observations, magpie. i decided to take a day off from thinking [the horror!], but tomorrow i shall try to respond to your thoughtful observations and those of several others.

trane said...

You are good man, and a great inspiration, Professor. Thank you.

Cheers,
trane