The How to Live chapter this week was very short and quite and unusually thin on ideas, namely, how Montaigne fell out of favor with the once idolizing Romantics because of the tremendous value he placed on being ordinary and temperate, and his irritation at the poet Tasso whose excesses of passion had seemed to have driven him to the insane asylum.

Chapter closed out with an excellent quote by Rebecca West a man chose to read:

“Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.”

The man were drawn to this poetic capture of their warring natures, and reported though that they thought they’d moved further in Montaigne’s direction of valuing — and cultivating their desires for calm stability, for being more ordinary, having seen the bad consequences of reckless excesses.  Prison, not surprisingly, makes it hard to be what Montaigne probably meant by ordinary, since what’s ordinary there is deformed by so many forces. The book group has been a haven where it’s possible to be ordinary, that is, calm, reasonable, and reflective, without paying a high price. These reflections made a nice bridge to our discussion of gratitude.

Before we launched the discussion of the chapter I asked the men to say, if they were comfortable doing so, one thing they were grateful for, and to weigh in on the notion of gratitude, whether it required an object (to which or whom one is grateful) and whether or how it is different from a feeling of happiness or pleasure. I mentioned the recent studies that (allegedly!) show that expressing gratitude systematically and regularly enhances the grateful person’s well being. They laughed as I teed up the question this way because they know how I feel about the results of positive psychology’s studies of pro social behavior (skeptical, if not scornful). The example I was curious about was, say, walking out last Sunday morning when it was a temperate 40 and the sky was mostly and deeply blue: what’s the difference between feeling pleasure when contemplating those feelings — the warmth and the beauty — and feeling grateful that they are so (or that you experienced those pleasures)? One man, an intellectual anarchist, said that he thought that gratitude is always aimed at an object, and that it made no sense to feel or express it unless that object/subject produced the think in question on purpose for you. Another member of the group (the “Savages!” person) quoted the Bible “For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjustalike.” by which I guess he meant that we should all be grateful for the rain and the sun and the blue sky. Anarchist replied that you could take the same fact to show that the universe is indifferent to us, to which he added “Then again I am a psychopath.” He has said this a few times before, which I always took to be a jokey way of saying that he’s been *called* that, but for some reason last night the thought first occurred to me that … Then again they wouldn’t clear him to be in the book group if he were. One hopes.

Someone took that example by the horns and made an excellent case that feeling grateful is different from feeling pleasure at the sight of the blue sky. If nothing else you had to attend to the feeling and the sky and their connection differently.

First, someone said that he was grateful to the CO who in reply to his question about where he was headed — to a book group meeting — said “Good for you.”

A Native American member of the group said that he starts every day expressing gratitude for many very particular things, because it is part of their culture. He draws a lot and noted that he writes thanks to whatever it is he’s drawn: the bird, the tree, the bunk on the back of each picture. He jumped off from there to talk about how grateful he is to us volunteers who come week in and week out, rain or snow storm, year round, and through the summers, for no pay and no glory. (I include the rhetorical details because he did.) And for the book groups, where it’s the one place he is treated with dignity, as if his ideas and voice matter, and where he has made friends with no strings attached. For example, he could lend a book to the new guy without worrying about what that act of kindness might cost him down the line. And not for the first time he expressed the most gratitude of all for having become a reader. Many in the group echoed what he said, down to the smallest closing remark that was almost painful for me to hear by someone who said he was grateful that he could start the day by saying Hi (raising his hand in a wave) to someone he knows from the group whose work in the yard had their paths cross early every morning on his way to get his insulin shot.

How to Live? Wake from the sleep of habit…

and prejudice. This week’s subtitle could be “Savages?”

Bakewell returns in this chapter to Montaigne’s interest in the Tupinambá visitors he’d met in Rouen, noting that Montaigne had avidly read Léry’s account of his travels with the Tupinambá in his “On Cannibals.” Montaigne wrote that the Tupinambá cannibal rituals, far from being degrading, showed primitive people at their best…Montaigne was impressed by the doomed’s capacity to show Stoic firmness in the face of his enemy. They were not just fascinating for their own sake, though, he noted: they made an ideal mirror for him and his countrymen to be awakened out of their self-satisfied dream.

Sure, Montaigne’s desire to respect and honor the foreigners was probably overly romantic (anticipating indeed the full blown Romanticism of his sympathetic 18th century readers). Still, he notes that Europeans in dire circumstances had had to resort to cannibalism too so we should be wary of judging those ritualist war-time practices of the Tupinambá. But the lessons Montaigne (and Bakewell) hoped we’ll take from the encounter with the radically different but honorable were lost on at least one reader in our group who could not buy any account of cannibalism except in extremis. In fact he found the ritualistic nature of wartime sacrifice far more condemnable than when the more civilized descended to it in a frenzy. He returned again and again to the Savages! pronouncement, in spite of a number of great counter arguments from other members of the group (including one very odd ball one about the FDA’s allowable level of human detritus in our food we consume every day), not to mention the framing of the tales in the chapter itself about the blinding powers of habit. We did not have a chance when in the thick of the debate to step back and think about it in the very context of the message of the chapter: the value of the mirror such experiences provide us with, and likewise the value of looking at ourselves from radically fresh new angles. Next time.




How to live? Be convivial: live with others

First, as is often the case Bakewell chooses a chapter focus that contrasts entertainingly with the last (in this case: “Keep a private room behind the shop”), and she also segues from a first narrow attention to the main theme (with nice quotes from Montaigne (about conviviality), some information about historical reception of his ideas on the matter, and contrasts) to more loosely related themes pumped up with really interesting historical detail. That combination worked particularly well at this week’s meeting. First, the men talked about the abnormal circumstances in prison that take some kinds of conviviality off the table: too dangerous; the strong, warm, chatty conviviality of our meetings is all the more welcome, and the contrast with everywhere else all the more striking. No surprise that prison is not a place to be convivial, or to readers of my blog that the book group is. (Still, nice to have the men recognize themselves participating in a form of life Montaigne values highly.)

Bakewell’s wonderful sub theme in the chapter is the importance of authentic social intercourse, not just what in some society passes for conviviality. He valued genuine, sometimes difficult conversations, and he not only didn’t turn away from the odd, he sought it out, appreciating wonders, and from what we can tell, not out of prurience, but a genuine openness of spirit. Their sense of themselves in the group is very much in the spirit of the chapter. They are honest, they are bold, they are themselves, and yes, one man reported that he’s found himself through becoming a reader, and that he’d never known before who he was.

Bakewell turns to his story of being robbed on a trip through the forest, when he decided directly to address the robbers who were talking nearby about how to proceed. When he spoke to them naturally and honestly they relaxed, took off their masks, and decided to let him go. He claims they even gave him back some of his money. An astute reader in the group at this point quoted Montaigne from another part of our book in which he extols the virtues of his stories, “some of which may even be true” (or something to that effect). Certainly a tall tale candidate.

This discussion led in turn to the question of whether or what role expecting good from others – and offering it yourself freely — helps to create a climate in which it is more likely to flourish (as Montaigne clearly thought was one moral of the story of his release by the robbers). Opinion was divided on the matter, as I suspect it would be in most groups, with wide agreement though that advertising, say, your generosity, will bring you more harm than good, in this life, not just in this prison. People (well, most, anyway) will do what they can to take advantage of you, and if anything you are less likely to return the favor to someone as foolish as you. I asked them to imagine giving of oneself from a position of strength, and out of respect for the other. Nope. It had better be quid pro quo even when it’s not quid pro quo. I confess that I was disappointed to have them shoot down (forgive the forest robbers inspired pub) a pet theory.

As James Mill might say: the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else

New person joined the group tonight, and since my prep two (mistake in call out so only one man showed) and four (lock down kept me out) weeks ago (of the same chapter) had once again gotten rusty (no, could not bring myself to read it for the third time) I decided to begin by asking the eight regulars to tell the new person about the Bakewell Montaigne book. Off they went with a bracing level of detail and enthusiasm and side stories and observations, with a long excursus on Boétie’s “On Voluntary Servitude” about which they were especially rapt, not least because we read the original source material and not Bakewell’s take on Montaigne’s take on it.

They continue to think about his argument, and talk about it, and it got new life tonight in the recent launch of Michelle Alexander’s first op-ed piece in the New York Times in which she argues that she is not part of the resistance but is part of the “revolutionary river.” Was Boétie only arguing for a deficient way to overcome a tyrant? One man closed that segment with “Boétie would have some interesting things to say to Alexander about the power of resistance.”

Early on I  wrote in these pages about the men’s attention to authenticity, ownership, originality, and adamance about giving credit to forebears and influences when it is due. I’ll add to that family of values that their desire to read the original works reflects more than a distrust of the secondary source — though that’s certainly part of it — but even more so a newfound trust, and delight, in themselves as interpreters.

This week’s subtitle: Keep a private room behind the shop. What might that mean in prison? Is it possible, and if so in what sense? More on the answers anon.


9/11/18: lockdown

No non essential yard movement. No non essential call outs.

I and the men’s idea about what is essential or not likely diverge from the prison’s, but what can you do?

With the screw up with last time’s call out, and this week’s lockout it’ll be SIX WEEKS between meetings.  Will have to reread the assigned chapter for a third time in two weeks (not great, but not a big deal either).


One man, wrong book

Walked into school classroom on time as usual to find only one man in the room. We took a look at the call out sheet and saw that it named the person who’d actually been there last night — to a full group of 8 or 9, but not this regular attender, who’d been at work — as tonight’s instructor. I can’t know for certain, but guess that everyone there last night assumed that the call out for tonight listing the same person from last night was mistaken.  That would also account for the one person who did show up (who’d not been there last night) coming with that instructor’s book.

We did not talk about the assigned reading, which I’ll have to prepare again before our meeting in two weeks (my mind is sadly like that);  not that he’d not read it, in fact everyone in the group has long ago raced way ahead of me in our very readable Bakewell book, but because the group will of course want to pick up where we left off last time.

We had a good talk about his college aspirations after he’s released, and I expect him to do very well, for one thing, he’s become a bona fide reader because of our book group, which he mentioned tonight with some astonishment, and a lot of pleasure. He also reminded me that we’d closed the Boétie conversation last time with the question of how when many people want to talk we can get other people to listen. He’d been thinking about it and had some ideas. I asked him to hang on to them for another couple of weeks until our next meeting.

I stayed for a bit more than an hour, until the guards, who’d expected him to opt to leave for rec when it became clear that there would be no actual group meeting, came by to urge me to go home. They took themselves to be liberating me, and I got the message, so I did.

Varieties of resistance

I have been struggling about what to post about our last meeting (August 14). As sometimes happens – though less so on the Bakewell/Montaigne/Boétie (On Voluntary Servitude) readings – the conversation veered off sharply in ways even Hume would hard pressed to trace back or explain. Before we got started on the week’s assigned material — the remainder of the slim Boétie volume — somehow we took up the topic of the legality and wisdom of providing victim and victim family testimony (about harm) in the sentencing phase of trials. Feeling ran high (mirroring the topic) and there was sharp disagreement about this practice. One person in particular went on at length about the ways families and communities (and not just individual victims) can be harmed indirectly by crimes. I made a fair logical move though in asking him about how the truth of his claim connected to the legal matter culpability (and punishment), and whether or not we are dangerously close to ad misercordium territory when such witnesses (well, or speakers) are lined up. At this point one of the men passionately rejected the practice on the grounds of the unexpected harm such confrontation and testimony could do to the victims. At first he was arguing against requiring such testimony, and when others pointed out that the controversy was over whether judges should allow (or encourage) victims to talk to the court about their pain, he maintained that it might bring more harm to them, even if they think otherwise. “Has anyone here been raped?” he yelled out. “Well I was, when I was a young teenager, violently: I had to have 40 stitches. A therapist later made me confront my rapist, and it did the opposite of help me. It terrified me, and the man got off with almost no punishment.” When we recovered enough equanimity to speak we agreed that he’d made a good point about possible backfire even from its intended aim of helping the process of recovery.

We then moved on soberly to the assigned material for the meeting, with a particular interest in subjecting Boétie’s concept of withholding consent to a variety of historical examples, hoping to get a better sense of what he meant by withholding consent, whether he was right about its likely power, and what kinds of historical conditions had to be in place for it to work. How applicable is it, for example, in a 21st century democracy (Boétie explicitly lists democratically elected men who turn out to be tyrants with other authoritarian leaders)? It was a logically interesting experience of trying to import a concept from another century and country to the present day. Of course we proceed by analogy, and while no analogy is perfect, it helps to bring out what’s  applicable to the surface. Strikes, boycotts, Lysistrata-inspired withholding, refusal to pay taxes, Gandhian resistance to buying or producing essential colonial products be damned: one particularly politically and historically savvy Libertarian often brings us back to the role the Wobblies played in a number of successful US labor disputes, voting for a helpful boost from the threat of violence for effective resistance to tyranny. Strong men (sic) to strong man.

“I couldn’t put it down!”

Last night we turned our attention to the Étienne de La Boétie work we’d heard so much about in the Montaigne chapter I wrote about in my last post: “On Voluntary Servitude.” I’d asked people to read the long introduction, and the short first chapter for last night. Some read the intro, but most did not, having been turned off as soon as the editor got explicitly interpretive. After all we sought out the work because we wanted to hear more about the argument from de La Boétie himself, not from Bakewell mediated Montaigne. I had read both the assigned chunks, of course, but it turns out that I was the only one who had not read the rest of the book. One man exclaimed as noted in the title; he voiced the sentiment of the group.

We got off to an roaring start with the case someone carefully laid out on the blackboard for the view that Étienne de La Boétie did not exist, was/is rather just a nom de plume of Montaigne’s. (To be fair, Bakewell planted that seed, but, boy, did R run with it.) Here goes, sans the graphic: Étienne is Stephen, or, the first Christian, and he is of, if we Latinize, Boethius, author of The Consolation of Philosophy (an early neo Platonist defense of Christianity). R admits he’s not sure how “On Voluntary Solitude” connects to the Consolation, still… Does he really believe this account, and want us to too? Not really! — just having fun. And it was.

The men talked a lot about the differences in the challenge of withdrawing consent from an authoritarian government that is elected, and one that represents a highly diverse society such as ours, not to mention, the huge question we had taken up just before the meeting’s end, of what La Boétie means — referentially — by withdrawing consent. What is passive tendering of consent? Is there a third option, or does a citizen either give or withhold consent? Where does doing nothing fall?

The Go back! command was once again a rude surprise (especially now that the clock from the room has been removed, and none of us of course has watches or cell phones), and particularly unwelcome. Two hours at a clip is just too little time.

I haven’t mentioned in awhile (and for new readers) that these men always make it a point to thank me for coming, for my time, and for bringing these books and ideas into their lives.








Drip drip drip

Last week (on July 3rd) ten copies of our next book — La Boétie’s On Voluntary Servitude — were delivered by amazon to the prison addressed by name and title to the person who needs to vet all our readings, the librarian. Amazon helpfully also even notes who signed for it, so I really do know that the box was delivered. When I was at the prison that eve I looked for the box in the school though I knew that the odds of it having already been sent over to the school by the librarian were slim to none. I started to try to call the librarian on Monday, calling daily in the morning and early afternoon, only to have the extension ring through endlessly. Finally reached him today and heard what we have all heard many times in these circumstances: that he has not seen the box of books, and that he doesn’t have any idea where it might be. He tries to say that it must not have been delivered until I let him know that I have the name of the person who signed for it (and tell him the name). If he does find the box it will take at least a few more calls from me to have him send it to the school where I can distribute it to the men in the group, and it may well not be before the next time I am in, setting us back another few weeks.

It is safe to say that this sort of snafu with the books and other mailings from us is close to the norm: at the very least it is not at all exceptional. And on many occasions whole orders — boxes or envelopes — are never found (for example, a set of ten copies of the final exam from my critical thinking course which I’d covered with the group last summer, an exam they were very eager to take and go over). It’s even worse when it is a copy or two of a text, sent to hand out to members joining the group after we started a new book — those almost never make it to the school.

Beyond frustrating.  The thing is that there is nothing we can do when this happens; if you complain there will be serious repercussions down the line.

My college paid for these books, and I would of course be very reluctant to send another batch into the void. I should clarify for new readers of the blog that we can’t take in anything other than our own copies of the materials being covered that night — and a pen, if you are lucky. No purses, no keys, no extra papers, no nothin.


Eight men; one absent because of heat related stress, one absent for unknown reasons.

My old friend Randy Cohen, originator and long time writer of the NYTimes column The Ethicist, used to say that if there were one topic guaranteed to stir up the masses – numbers and fever pitch – it was animals, anything to do with animals. So it was in prison this eve. The chapter topic was Pyrrhonian skepticism, the third school of thought Montaigne looked to for ideas and advice about how to live (last week we talked about the chapter on Stoicism and Epicureanism). But along the way Bakewell also contrasts Pyrrhonian skepticism with Cartesian skepticism, and almost as a side point she contrasts Montaigne’s delight in animal tales (including his query When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?) with Descartes’ view of them as mere automata. The battle lines were thus conveniently drawn for us. The best pair of zingers: One man told of a wild deer who broke into his tent in the Rockies to help himself to some fish he’d just fried up, to which the Cartesian in the group replied that he’s be impressed when he heard about a deer who invented a fishing pole and taught itself to cast a rod, to which the first man replied that maybe it was smarter to figure out how to get the fruits of someone else’s labor.

But best of all was the intellectual shepherding by another member of the group when he asked, only half rhetorically: Why do we care so much about how different we are from animals? Why did it matter so much to Descartes and why does it to us? Another person answered: It has to do with the difference between Montaigne’s attitude of trying to learn about ourselves and how to live from pretty much everything including even animals and Pyrrhonism, vs. Descartes’ desire to overthrow Montaigne, and skepticism.

Another interesting theme: that the equanimity or ataraxia Pyrrhonism promises reveals a strange underestimation of the pleasure and value in everyday life — in the yard as well as in the library or school — of talking about what we do or don’t know, of trying to secure knowledge about things that matter to us, of weighing and debating evidence, figuring out the role hunches and gut feeling should play, and more. Ahhh, music to this epistemologist’s ears!

Boy, was that damn Go back! an unwelcome interruption tonight.