“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.

How to live?: amor fati? No way!

Only six men last night — call outs screwed up again; five or six men unable to get out of their dorms to come. How’d the six who made it get out? Not sure, beyond resourcefulness.

This week’s chapter’s subtitle answer: Use little tricks. But the systems Montaigne was drawn to are not little at all: Epicureanism, Stoicism and Skepticism, and not all of them are compatible with each other either.  But what aroused the most passion in our meeting were Stoics’ fondness for “pitiless mental rehearsals of all thing they dreaded most.” and the amor fati embrace of their unfolding lives; repetition or eternal recurrence as their existentialist heirs would also go on to recommend. The most vocal detractors of the group took amor fati to be a kind of morose surrendering to the very things that are beyond our grasp. (The text doesn’t help when it reports Montaigne’s envy of lunatics’ extreme example Epicurean deflection.) But as far as I could tell even the strongest critics came around to the view  — correct, I believe — that the Stoics’ position about the thrown (as Heidegger might say) is quite the opposite, that is, it’s a way to liberate oneself from those circumstances that are beyond our control by owning them, and at the same time use our powers to reframe our responses to those realities.

Everyone was indeed intrigued by the power of reframing, of perspective changing, of being a realist but at the same time investing the agent to be with the capacity to look at the facts differently — or showing agents’ capacity to do so: what they mean, and how we feel about them. We can soar above the empirical world, and envision time circling around on itself, over eons. Or we can bore down on the “purple-edged robe …[to see] the hair of a sheep soaked in shell-fish blood!” (p. 112)

Conclusion by one man: “I’ll be taking his advice about turning down the beam of reason slightly [he quoted]. Sometimes seeing things less sharply lets you see them better.”


How to have your life saved? Go to prison and read some philosophy there

6. Q. How to live?: A. Use little tricks

This week’s chapter starts with:

“About academic philosophers, Montaigne was usually dismissive: he disliked their        pedantries and abstractions. But he showed an endless fascination for another tradition in philosophy: that of the great pragmatic schools which explored such questions as how to cope with a friend’s death, how to work up courage…and how to make the most of life.”

One man immediately wondered about who the “academic philosophers” were, why the Hellenists, in contrast (Bakewell notes that Montaigne loved them), were thought not to be academic philosophers, and especially, whether or why philosophers should be held to any different practical standards than any other professional field, such as physics. Thus was a great debate launched about first, whether philosophers should be required to have their work have an impact on life on the street (as they put it). The group was divided on this matter, but it turned out that they were at least as divided on the question of what counted as having pragmatic value at all. Must it bake bread? Must it answer questions? And if it must answer questions must it do so in a way that anyone could understand? One man mentioned Berkeley, whom we read with great difficulty some time back, but who influenced his thinking about the nature of knowledge. I gave the example of GE Moore’s attack on the idealist’s claim that time is unreal – what could the claim mean if not that e.g., the talk of having had breakfast before work is wrong in some way (false or meaningless)? And what a doozy of a deeply philosophically interesting backfire that example led to! The native American member of the group made a strong case that in fact that claim that time is unreal could merely reflect the view that all of our ways of thinking and talking about time are merely conventional and that indeed 10:00 a.m., for example, as a time doesn’t really exist. He went on to say that Native American ways of talking about and thinking about humans’ relationship to nature is very different from that of people caught up in the hustle and bustle of the ways of the modern world, and that though those differences in whole worldviews might be distant enough from the day to day that they might be hard to connect back to the frameworks, that doesn’t make them any less real or significant.

Next he pointed out that the suicide rate of Native Americans (and Native American men in particular) is many times higher the general population. So what? Someone asked.  “Being in prison and in this group where I’ve learned a lot about ideas, some of them very abstract, may have saved my life.”

We wanted to hear more but ran out of time.

Somehow though just before we got hustled angrily out of the classroom by the guard – we lingered to hear out a sentence after the Go back! which I won’t do again – someone managed to wedge in the question of what I thought of the Miss America competition announcement that they’re ditching the swim suit segment of the competition. Ha! In this respect our meeting last week put me firmly in mind of my seminars for first years in which students (well, some anyway) treat me almost like an oracle, and seem to be endlessly interested in my views about just about anything.

How to live? Survive love and loss

Our brief good fortune while the person regularly in charge was on hiatus and the temporary replacement turned out to be better at and more committed to the basic mechanics of getting us all in ended abruptly when Old Guy returned. The less said about such matters the better, apart from noting that the change for the better with the The New confirmed our dim view of The Old (and the ease and speed with which it’s possible to get the clearances in).

In any case we had a terrific meeting, lively and laugh filled, great exchanges, and much soul searching on the nature of friendship, the role chemistry plays in making connections, the possible homoerotic reading of the central friendship the chapter details between Montaigne and la Boétie, and especially, a deep fascination with la Boétie’s work “On Voluntary Servitude.”

A few highlights of the discussion: first, though they didn’t buy Bakewell’s case that Montaigne was “On Voluntary Servitude”‘s real author — evidence way too thin to support the hypothesis — they expressed serious frustration that they could only find out about the piece third hand through Bakewell’s chronicle of Montaigne’s chronicle of it, with no primary text included in the Bakewell. They were fascinated by the idea that it could be read and interpreted and used to support diametrically opposing lines of argument about the relationship of citizens to the state.

A long time ago I wrote in these blog pages about the men’s high level of regard for authenticity, proper attribution to other sources, and originality, and boy, were those values at play in this discussion. They don’t trust Bakewell, or at least find her lack of substantial use of primary source materials (vs. her own readings of them) suspect.

They have asked me immediately to procure the original la Boétie text for them to read and judge for themselves. They quite carefully parsed the different ways in which Montaigne worried or hoped the text might be understood. I am looking forward to complying, and to the discussion that will follow.

As with counterfactuals generally I can’t sure that I’d not have shared those worries about the heavy Bakewell thumb on the interpretive scale, or desire for WAY more primary Montaigne or la Boétie, but I doubt it: another case in which the men’s attention and interests bring to the fore features of work and conversation things I’m pretty sure I’d have neglected at best. And those things are distinctive.

Moment of high comedy: early on in the chapter Bakewell quotes some passionate passages from Montaigne’s essays, and letters too, I believe, but quickly dispatches with any speculation about homosexuality — “…while any hint of real homosexuality was met with horror,…” — that seemingly romantic language like that in their exchanges was commonplace (and meant nothing sexual). One totally straight identified man who did not buy Bakewell’s argument that this language does not reveal a homoerotic love and relationship supported his view with the tale of an intense, adoring  adolescent friendship he’d been in with a handsome pal who always got all the girls, but, who, he reported portentously, TURNED OUT TO BE GAY… To which another man pointed out with obvious glee: Oh yeah, and how’d you turn out?

To clarify: the speaker was implying that his experience of having learned that the beloved companion of his youth was after all gay points in the direction of reading Montaigne and la Boétie’s friendship as also gay. But one of the other members of the group was reminding the speaker that though he was inseparable from his friend, and loved him deeply, he is not gay.



Back in prison: yay!

Probably not an oft heard sentiment. But we volunteers have had such a terrible time getting in or getting the men into the school for months that when it all comes together it’s a happy relief. The person who had been doing our call outs (very unreliably as was) left the position, they’d no plans to replace him, and the all important paper work was falling through the cracks. Fortunately the Dep has agreed to take over for the immediate future, and the gate clearances and call outs were in place.

We started by talking about the promise of iPads they are supposed to get soon which led to the observation that this educational perq will confirm some widespread false beliefs about how well people in prison are treated: you know, three squares, lots of free time, free TV, all kinds of free stuff. We talked about the challenge of prison reform activism with the old dilemma that the first step calls for a massive public re education campaign, but that once people get a grasp of how massive and interconnected the prison problems are with wider social inequities it is easy to feel paralyzed and overwhelmed. Where to begin? At this point in the discussion J. jumped in with a connection between our current situation and those Montaigne wrote about surrounded by religious persecution and indeed the Spanish Inquisition, and for that matter by humanity and conflict for as far back as we know, facing towering problems, from a minority position, and having to fight the feeling of helplessness in order to try to do anything to change. “This book definitely gave me insight into how some people in history handled gigantic problems, and how debate can be a normal part of figuring out what you believe and should believe.”  Another man talked about how, inspired by Montaigne, he’s been writing every day, and what had previously been a “dead exercise” to him required by a rehab program he’s in: to record his core beliefs through “The world is ____,” “I am ___,” “Others are______” has become a great springboard for reflection.  And a third talked about the strange power closeness to death had had over Montaigne’s previous fear of death. He was moved to read several passages about death he found particularly beautiful and interesting. We discussed them in turn, and they expressed regret that Bakewell does not include more primary material. Next time I’ll take a copy of the Essays.

I don’t know if I’ve made clear in the blog that though the men are actively grateful to us volunteers they do not from all appearances say things about what we are reading or discussing to curry favor with me: my favor is pretty worthless there, for one thing…no grades, no credit, no certificate. It is a motivated, self selecting group who are there for the conversation about books and ideas. And boy do they regularly affirm the value of what we do. I often arrive anxious about pretty much everything: will I get in, will they get released to the school, will some people still not have the books I’ve sent several times over, will they be unprepared, will someone hijack the discussion to follow a personal biographical tangent to the ends of the earth. All of these fears have been born out at one time or another. But I have very rarely left a meeting not feeling keenly that we’ve done some good, solid philosophy together, and see that they are the better for it, and that they take themselves to be so.