Thursday, May 26, 2016

Illustrating Different Kinds of Hope

Baseball Hopes

            Howard and I had a few minutes in the office.  He asked how I was doing, and I reminded him that I’ve been reading and thinking about hope.  Knowing of my interest in baseball, he laughingly suggested that Cub fans might be the epitome of hope.  So it’s time to write of baseball hopes.            
Right from the start, we need to admit that some people—otherwise sane, kind, faithful, good people—do not like baseball.  As inexplicable as that may be, it’s true.  I’ve heard non-baseball fans say, “Baseball is boring,” with apparent sincerity.  Non-fans do not agonize over the failures of their favorite them.  Non-fans think it strange that we fans spend significant parts of the summer agonizing over players who get hits 25% of the time while rejoicing enthusiastically over those who get hits 31% of the time.  Non-fans think that a 0-0 game lacks “excitement” (even it it’s the eighth inning!).  I do not offer an explanation for these facts; I merely acknowledge them. 
If you, dear reader, are not a baseball fan, you should probably just move on to a different essay.  This one won’t interest you.  On the other hand, you may be interested in philosophy and moral theory.  In particular, you may be interested in the virtue of hope.  But if you hate baseball… well, you’ve had fair warning.
In earlier essays, I divided hopes into three kinds: mundane, extreme, and radical.  Mundane hopes aim for ordinary goods of this world.  Extreme hopes aim at goods (of this world or of another) which seem very unlikely.  Radical hopes expect good things in the future, even when we don’t have thick concepts of what that good future would be.  Illustrative examples will help:
Mundane hopes: a woman hopes for a promotion at work, a student hopes for a good grade, a city councilor hopes for strong tax revenues and no budget-busting emergencies.  Extreme hopes: a injured man alone on a forest road hopes for help to come before he dies of exposure, a cancer patient hopes that the experimental drug will cure her, a lottery player acknowledges the extreme unlikelihood of winning the jackpot but hopes to win anyway.  Radical hope: Chief Plenty Coups leads the Crow people to hope for a good future, a future in which they will still be distinctively Crow, even though he recognizes that their way of life is irrevocably changed.  Some religious people have radical hope in regard to death, in that they acknowledge they have no concept of what an afterlife would be like, yet they hope that the universe, or karma, or God will cause a good future after death.
Now, how do these categories apply to baseball? 
First, we must acknowledge that hope is crucial to baseball.  In baseball, more often than not, hitters fail to hit.  Fielders make errors (which are duly recorded like demerits).  Pitchers give up runs; the higher the pitcher’s ERA, the worse he is.  The best teams lose at least a third of their games.  The season is so long that almost all players suffer injury; in many cases this means missing games on the disabled list.
Failure, injury and defeat: baseball players have to cultivate hope just to stay in the game.  But enough about them.  What about the fans?
Fans of some teams exemplify mundane hopes.  They hope their beloved Cardinals, Giants, Phillies, Red Sox, Royals, or White Sox will win World Series or, failing that, to at least make the playoffs.  In any particular year, the odds are against them, but these are reasonable hopes.  All these teams have won the World Series since 2005 (the Giants three times).  As of today, all these teams are doing fairly well, so their fans’ hopes for a 2016 championship are intact.  (Phillies fans are, of course, deluded.  Their players have over-performed stunningly.  The Phillies will come back to earth.  Any day now.)
Fans of other teams exemplify extreme hopes.  By this stage in the season, late May, the Angels, As, Padres, Rockies, Reds, Marlins, and Brewers have fallen far enough behind the leaders that their fans’ hopes are on life-support.  They hope that the latest rookie call-up will be like an experimental drug—a miracle cure.
Fans of the Braves and Twins aren’t hoping for miracles.  Their teams are so bad and so far behind the leaders that they have shifted the focus of their hopes.  Their hopes are radical hopes, that maybe the team has better young players down on the farm.  Or that the team will choose brilliantly in the free agent draft this June and bring in great new talent.  Or that the General Manager will somehow trade a relief pitcher to one of the contenders and receive a haul of young players in return.  Or that the team will get sold to a new ownership group, and they will hire a whole new front office.  Or…  Radical hope sometimes clings to a belief in a good future even when it doesn’t know what that good future would be like.
In 1969 the Seattle Pilots joined the American League.  They were terrible, but I was too young to realize this.  In mid-summer I still hoped they could win the division.  I nagged my father to promise we would go to a Pilots game if they made the playoffs.  How should that ancient naïve hope be categorized?  That next winter, the Pilots fled Seattle, to become the Milwaukee Brewers, and in 1982 the Brewers played in the World Series.  This did nothing to console Pilot fans.
What about the Cubs?  In the 108 years since they won the World Series, the Cubs have played in the post-season 16 times.  They lost nine times in the Series, the last time in 1945, and they lost seven times in the playoffs, the first time in 1984 and the last time in 2015.  Now, reaching the postseason 16 times in 108 years is not so bad; on average, once every seven years.  But losing all 16 times?  There is a special aroma to Cubs fans’ hope.  But the Cubs are really good this year.  They’re in first place.  Maybe…
Hope spring eternal for baseball fans, even for Mariner fans.  (The Mariners came into existence in 1977, partly as an inducement for the City of Seattle to drop its suit against the American League over the loss of the Pilots.  Maybe that is an example of radical hope coming true.)  My favorite team has never won the World Series, for good reason: it has never played in the World Series.  In the 40 years of Mariner existence, they have reached the postseason just four times.  (Once every ten years, so Cub fans have nothing to complain about.)  The Mariners are pretty good this year, and they leading their division.  Maybe…
There is one kind of baseball fan that totally escapes my categories.  Yankee fans do not hope.  They regard World Championships as a birthright.  They are surprised only when they do not win.


Thursday, May 19, 2016

Trees and Hope

Planting a Tree

            I want to talk about planting a tree as a symbol of hope.  But first: there is a sense in which all human activity springs from hope.  Does that seem overstated?  A woman rises from bed, stumbles to the kitchen, and starts the coffee machine.  How could such a mundane action arise from hope?
I have often written that hope is a “syndrome,” typically composed of several aspects of a person’s soul.  But within that syndrome, two things are always true.  First, hope looks with desire.  Second, hope looks at possible things (neither certain nor impossible).  Putting the two together: hope combines appetite (we want the thing) and intellect (we judge it possible).  It can be argued that these features are present in all human activity.
All action aims at some good, or to avoid some evil, which means preserving good.  We would not choose the action if we did not desire the good or desire to avoid the evil.  We would not choose the action if we did not believe that our action would achieve the desired good (or at least increase the chances of achieving the desired good).  We simply do not act unless we hope that our action will move us toward some outcome we think good.
But what about that barely-awake woman fumbling with her coffee machine?  Does she exhibit hope?
I am not claiming that automatic physiological events are hopeful.  After the woman drinks her coffee, her stomach and intestines will process the beverage whether she wills it or not.  Caffeine will have its desired (or undesired) effect on her blood vessels.  Her kidneys will shunt off liquid to her bladder.   Her heart will beat quite independently of her conscious decisions (a bit quicker, perhaps, because of the caffeine).  And so on.  None of these normal bodily “activities” count as actions in my claim that all actions arise from hope.  Actions are what agents do voluntarily.
But the woman, as we imagine her, acts out of habit.  How can something as unthinking as turning on a coffee machine count as hopeful?  Well, habits generally grow out of freely chosen behaviors.  People do not use coffee machines automatically; they have to learn how.  (As a non-coffee drinker, I learned how to use the coffee machine to please my wife.  Clearly, a hopeful activity!)  When the woman began her habit of using the coffee machine, she did so with the expectation of getting some good.  She built her habit with hopeful actions.
            Now if the woman really has, by daily repetition, made her coffee machine rendezvous into something equivalent to the functioning of her kidneys, then we might say her morning ritual has lost its hopeful quality.  (We could imagine that she does it while still asleep.)  But this is only because it is no longer an “action” as I am using the word. 
            So: in a very broad sense, all actions are hopeful.  We choose because we hope.  When we despair we cease to act.
            What does this have to do with planting trees?
            Trees have a natural life span, in some species, much longer than we have.  To plant a tree is, in many cases, to aim at a good that will not be fully realized in one’s lifetime.  To plant a tree is to hope for a good that will be enjoyed by others.  (Of course, one may hope to enjoy the tree for oneself, but in many cases those who plant trees acknowledge that the lasting, greater benefit will accrue to others.)  Planting a tree, then, can be a symbol of a certain class of hopes, hopes that look beyond one’s lifetime, hopes that look forward to goods that others will enjoy. 
            Hopes differ according to the thing hoped for.  When we plant a tree, we hope (at least if we recognize the truth of trees) for an earthly good that reaches beyond death.  Planting trees symbolizes solidarity with coming generations whom we do not know.  To plant a tree can be a meaningful way to bless those who will come after.  It is a symbol of the good we hope for.
            That does not mean that every tree is planted virtuously.  In 1994 Karen and I took the boys on vacation to the redwoods of California.  We came back with two redwood seedlings, which we planted in our front yard.  A couple years later, Karen removed one tree, because the fast growing trees were already interfering with each other; we had planted them too close together.  The remaining redwood grew magnificently.  By 2007 it was over 50’ tall, towering over our house, and its roots threatened our foundation.  We had planted too close to the house.  And so, paying the arborist handsomely, we lost our tree.  The stump revealed a large split in the trunk of the tree; if not removed, the tree might have fallen in a storm and crushed our house.
Aristotle wrote that all the moral virtues must be gained by practice under the guidance of phronesis, practical wisdom.  The planting of our redwood tree may have been a symbol of hope, but it was not done wisely.
Whenever we act, we act in hope.  Sometimes we act out of generous hopes, and we hope that our actions will bless future people.  But we need to think about our hopes.  It is possible to misplace our hope or mismanage our hopes.  The redwood tree that no longer stands in front of our house is a symbol too.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

On "Legend"

The Last Man Theme

            In 1954 Richard Matheson published a science fiction novel, I Am Legend, which introduced Robert Neville, a scientist who has survived the end of civilization.  Matheson’s story has been made into a movie three times: The Last Man on Earth (1964) with Vincent Price as the lead (but renamed Robert Morgan), The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston as Neville, and I Am Legend (2007) with Will Smith.
            The root idea is that an infection has decimated the human race, killing the vast majority and turning almost all of the survivors into a horror.  In the novel and the first film the infected survivors are vampires, Matheson’s story giving a scientific twist to traditional vampire mythology.  In the 1971 version, the infected people are nocturnal albinos, and in 2007’s version they’re called “Darkseekers.”  In every iteration of the story the infected people avoid sunlight and attack uninfected people.  Robert Neville (Robert Morgan in the first movie) spends much of his time killing the infected people.  In the early versions this means driving stakes through their hearts (since they are vampires), but by the time we get to Will Smith’s Robert Neville he can kill them with explosions or gunfire.  Between battle scenes, Neville (Morgan), who is a scientist in every rendering of the story, seeks a scientific explanation of the infection.
            Zombie stories, recently popular in The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, parallel the “Legend” story in their post-apocalyptic setting and the fighting between the infection-created monsters and uninfected humans.  But the Dead stories lack the “last man” aspect of Matheson’s novel and its film offspring.  And it is that aspect of the story I wish to explore.
            In the novel, Neville is literally the last man; in the end, he loses the fight against the vampires.  They capture him, and Neville comes to see that they fear and hate him much as he fears and hates them.   In the last scene, while awaiting his execution, Neville realizes that he will be remembered by the new vampire race as a mythological figure: “I am legend.”  In the Vincent Price 1964 version, there is no acceptance of the new dominant species.  “Morgan” dies cursing the vampires as “freaks”; he says that he is the last true man.
            In the 1971 Charlton Heston and 2007 Will Smith versions, “last man” takes on a new meaning.  Dr. Neville seeks not just to understand the infection, but also to find a cure, an injection that will protect the uninfected from death or becoming monsters—maybe even a cure for those already infected.  In the end, he finds it; a vaccine can be made, but only by using Dr. Neville’s blood.  The discovery comes too late for Neville: in Omega Man he dies, arms outstretched in a crucifix position, while handing a vial of his blood to a survivor, who presumably will use it to save the remaining humans.  In I Am Legend, Neville finally solves the problem just as the Darkseekers are breaking into his laboratory.  He gives the vial of blood to a woman and child who had joined him during the story and hides them in a coalbunker.  Then he detonates an explosive that kills the invading Darkseekers and himself.  Next day, under the protection of sunlight, the woman Anna takes Neville’s blood to a survivors’ camp where it will be used to stop the infection.
            The 1971 and 2007 editions of the story turn Matheson’s “last man” on its head.  Instead of accepting, however begrudgingly, the advent of the new race (as in the novel), or cursing its triumph (as in The Last Man on Earth), the Heston and Smith versions make Neville into a Christ figure, who dies to save the human race.  The symbolism is especially graphic in Omega Man, when Neville bleeds to death with arms outstretched.  I Am Legend doesn’t make the symbolism so overt; Will Smith’s Neville dies in an explosion rather than in a crucifix position, and the title doesn’t refer so obviously to Christian theology.  In both stories, however, it is clear that Neville’s sacrifice has saved the human race.  It’s not clear whether that salvation includes the already infected “monsters”; maybe the vaccine can reverse the disease, maybe only protect the uninfected.  Dr. Robert Neville doesn’t rise from the dead, but he saves humanity from death.
            What a strange mash-up of ideas!  Matheson’s story and the first movie give us the end of the human race, replaced by vampires.  Omega Man and I Am Legend give us a Christ figure, dying to save humanity.  But what a Christ!  In every version violence abounds.  Neville (Morgan) blasts away at the vampires/albinos/Darkseekers with a great variety of weapons and a great deal of gusto.  He fears them and hates them.  It’s as if Jesus were a 1st century Zealot, killing Romans as fast as possible.
           (As I noted, in the novel, Neville comes at last to a kind of acceptance of the vampire triumph, an ending intended to increase the horror of the story.  In an alternate ending to I Am Legend, Neville makes peace with the attacking Darkseekers.  Now his blood can still save humanity, but Neville doesn’t have to die.  Is this peacemaking Neville a better Christ figure?)
            The great story is Christ’s story.  We can’t seem to get away from it.  Often, of course, we corrupt it.  We want Christ to save us, but we want him to do it our way, with lots of guns and explosions.  Sometimes we reconcile ourselves to the idea that Christ died for us; life from death gets us deep in our subconscious.  But we have a very hard time reconciling ourselves to the idea that we killed Christ.  We are the vampires, the Darkseekers.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

MacIntyre, Nietzsche and Rorty

Locating Stories

            Alasdair MacIntyre’s book, After Virtue, has deeply affected my thinking—and my ambitions as a writer and philosopher—since I first read it in 1993.  After that first taste, naturally I read Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, and Dependent Rational Animals.  MacIntyre inspires and pleases, but not through style.  His sentences are often long, complex, and dense.  I sometimes warn students expressly to not write like MacIntyre.  No, MacIntyre is important for his ideas.  Here is a passage, from p. 216 in the 2nd edition of After Virtue.

            A central thesis then begins to emerge: man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal.  He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth.  But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”

            MacIntyre here is expressly disagreeing with philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche or, more recently, Richard Rorty.  Nietzsche thought that we create ourselves through the expression of will.  Weak people, frightened by the moral vertigo of creating values, give themselves false consolation by accepting “slave morality,” the safe conformity of English utilitarian gentlemen.  (“Man does not seek happiness,” wrote Nietzsche.  “Only the Englishman does that.”  His scorn for careful philosophers such as Mill and Sidgwick sparkles.)
            Rorty takes a slightly different line.  We deceive ourselves, Rorty thought, if we succumb to the idea that our stories can be true.  Nietzsche apparently thought that his “will to power” doctrine was actually true.  We should be ironists, thought Rorty.  We ought to recognize that our deepest feelings and values are historical accidents.  If we had been born in another century or society, we contemporary liberals would have celebrated the torture of animals and the public execution of heretics.  We ought to regard ourselves as poets, says Rorty.  The poems we write are our lives.  We should not judge a poem or life as true, but as interesting.
            No reader of this blog will be surprised that I side with MacIntyre, not with Nietzsche or Rorty.  MacIntyre says that I can only write my story—that is, my life story, told through actions—if I can locate that story inside another(s).  Nietzsche and Rorty would be quick to respond that my siding with MacIntyre merely expresses my preferences, my own will-to-power or my own “poetry.”  They would assert such claims, but is there reason to believe them?
            MacIntyre gives an argument for his position.  It’s long and complex, so I will summarize.  1. The concept of “action” is unintelligible apart from background concepts.  2. One of the background concepts for “action” is the concept of narrative.  3. Therefore, I cannot understand the actions I make without understanding narrative.
            Perhaps the summary is too short to do much good.  Maybe an illustration, MacIntyre’s own illustration, will help.
            Imagine that someone points to a man and asks, “What is that man doing?”  Here are some possible replies: “He is digging with a shovel,” “He is planting turnips,” He is getting exercise,” “He is gardening,” “He is pleasing his wife,” and so on.
            (The “and so on” here is intriguing.  Logicians and philosophers of language have taught us that for any possible physical event there is an infinite number of possible descriptions.)
            Do you see MacIntyre’s point?  We do not know how to describe a human action without reference to intentions, beliefs, and narrative.  The man is not pleasing his wife unless he believes that she wants him to plant turnips.  Planting turnips in spring is a very different thing than “planting turnips” in dead of winter; the lack of a proper narrative makes certain descriptions of actions literally incredible.  What would you think of a story that began with the next sentence?  “The bachelor resigned while feeding his wife.”  Words like “bachelor,” “resigned,” and “wife” are essentially narrative concepts.  They bring story with them.
            The concepts of human action, intention, belief, and narrative form what I call a “concept nest.”  Each notion is defined in terms of the others.  Like a bird’s nest, the various ideas support one another.  Someone might worry that this creates a self-referential loop in the concept next, a vicious circle.  But the worry is unfounded.  We do in fact understand the various terms in a concept nest.  Each term helps us understand the others.  Gradually, by learning the connections between the concepts, we learn the whole.
            A few years ago, in a blog post in Story and Meaning, I confessed one of my intentions in writing fiction.  I want my stories to cohere, to make sense, in the light of the great story.  Stories give background to values.  My stories are full of good and evil: good people, bad people, and lots of people who struggle with virtue and vice.  I want my stories to be “good” stories in two ways.  I want them to be about good and evil.  And I want them to be good in the sense of enjoyable to read.  (The jury is very much still out on that.)
            We all author our own stories, our own lives.  However much I want to write good stories, I’m much more concerned that I write a good life story.  The way to do that, MacIntyre says, is to find the story in which mine is a part.  The great story of Christ backgrounds and overarches us all.