Saturday, March 24, 2012


Four quotes from reading I did today that might serve as footnotes to yesterday's post:

To be playful and serious at the same time is possible, and it defines the ideal mental condition. Absence of dogmatism and prejudice, presence of intellectual curiosity and flexibility, are manifest in the free play of the mind upon a topic. To give the mind this free play is not to encourage toying with a subject, but is to be interested in the unfolding of the subject on its own account, apart from its subservience to a preconceived belief or habitual aim. Mental play is open-mindedness, faith in the power of thought to preserve its own integrity with out external sup ports and arbitrary restrictions. Hence free mental play involves seriousness, the earnest following of the development of subject-matter. It is incompatible with carelessness or flippancy, for it exacts accurate noting of every result reached in order that every conclusion may be put to further use. What is termed the interest in truth for its own sake is certainly a serious matter, yet this pure interest in truth coincides with love of the free play of thought.

- John Dewey via the indefatigable Wes Fryer

Writing in 1870, Walt Whitman said, “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without; for I see clearly that the combined foreign world could not beat her down. But these savage, wolfish parties alarm me. Owning no law but their own will, more and more combative, less and less tolerant of the idea of ensemble and of equal brotherhood, the perfect equality of the States, the ever-overarching American Ideas, it behooves you to convey yourself implicitly to no party, nor submit blindly to their dictators, but steadily hold yourself judge and master over all of them.” And he said, “It is the fashion of dillettants [sic] and fops (perhaps I myself am not guiltless,) to decry the whole formulation of the active politics of America, as beyond redemption, and to be carefully kept away from. See that you do not fall into this error. America, it may be, is doing very well upon the whole, notwithstanding these antics of the parties and their leaders, these half-brained nominees, the many ignorant ballots, and many elected failures and blatherers.”

It is true that the period after the Civil War was a low point in American political history. And it is true also that the country came through it all at last, fairly intact by the standards that apply in such cases. This is reassuring to consider, since we now live in a political environment characterized by wolfishness and filled with blather. We have the passive pious, who feel they have proved their moral refinement in declaring the whole enterprise bankrupt, and we have the active pious, who agree with them, with the difference that they see some hope in a hastily arranged liquidation of cultural assets. It was Whitman’s faith that a great presiding spirit of Democracy would check, or correct for, the worst deficiencies of the civilization. It may indeed have been that ideal that kept us on course, or allowed us finally to find our way back to a better and healthier national life, then and in all the other periods in our history when our politics have seemed to be beyond redemption. Whitman says Democracy “is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.”

Whitman was a Quaker and he wrote as one: “I say the real and permanent grandeur of these States must be their religion, / Otherwise there is just no real and permanent grandeur; / (nor character nor life worthy the name without religion…).” This is from Leaves of Grass, and so is this: “All parts away for the progress of souls, / All religion, all solid things, arts, governments, all that was or is / apparent upon this globe or any globe, / falls into niches and corners / before the procession of souls along / the grand roads of the universe.” The vision of the soul, all souls, realizing itself in the course of transforming everything that has constrained it and them, finds expression in many writers of the period, prominent among them Emerson, Melville, and Dickinson, and in later writers such as William James and Wallace Stevens. For all of them creeds fall away and consciousness has the character of revelation. To identify sacred mystery with every individual experience, every life, giving the word its largest sense, is to arrive at democracy as an ideal, and to accept the difficult obligation to honor others and oneself with something approaching due reverence. It is a vision that is wholly religious though by no means sectarian, wholly realist in acknowledging the great truth of the centrality of human consciousness, wholly open in that it anticipates and welcomes the disruption of present values in the course of finding truer ones.

- Marilynne Robinson, from the preface to her new collection of essays When I Was a Child I Read Books

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