homo sicut arbor

More than any other psychological state, uncertainty colors the daily life of social distancing. How many pounds of rice should I stockpile in the kitchen? Will my beloved neighborhood restaurant be long gone when the city reawakens in a few…months? Perhaps most uncertain of all is our own biology: am I sick? Every audible breath is a moment of divination, every cough a call for augury.

It’s strange to feel so unmoored when life is tied down to these domestic docks of ours. To shuffle metaphors a bit, the quotidian routine of quarantine forces me to identify not with an anchored boat but instead with a nearby magnolia tree: restless for springtime but stuck in immobile solitude.

This immobility has already instituted some new daily habits—the group-Zoom dinner party chief among them—while jump-starting old ones that slip away during the semester’s bustle, like journaling and reading through offbeat Latin. This morning’s discovery was Giannozzo Manetti‘s On Human Worth and Excellence (1452), recently translated by Brian Copenhaver for Harvard’s I Tatti series. Rebutting a certain medieval verdict on man’s lowliness and even worthlessness, Manetti’s text presents a vision of and argument for hominis dignitas: the dignity of the human being.

It’s an uplifting read in our own unexpectedly cloistered days, especially when Manetti considers the incurable diseases of his own time. He does not, to be sure, deny the grim, unpredictable reality of pestilence: “Naturally feeble, to begin with, and then weakened by illness of some kind, our bodies quickly slip and fall toward death: to put it more plainly, then, we find our bodies in daily life fluttering like birds and suddenly tumbling into catastrophe” (4.3). Perhaps better to identify with the sturdy magnolia than with transient sparrows.

Manetti would simply urge us to fasten upon that magnolia’s purple buds, finding in their petals a moment of respite from an ascendant pandemic. “More kinds of pleasure than distress rule this ordinary, everyday life of ours,” he writes (4.22). “Strange to say, there is no human activity, if we attend carefully and correctly to its nature, that we do not enjoy at least a little”—the harmony of a song, the scent of a flower, the texture of a soft fabric. Amid these extraordinary stresses, may you also look out the window and find something ordinary to admire, at least a little.

the wild sea of my conscience

Today in my afternoon class, we grappled with the various formulations of Kant’s categorical imperative in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals—how our a priori reason demands that we act in accordance with universal laws of morality. These laws, Kant argues, are often (always?) at odds with our private, subjective inclinations. Just as we wrestled with Kant’s framework, the junior Senator from Utah announced his arduous decision, one grounded in his “own reasoned judgment,” to vote “Guilty” in our nation’s third presidential impeachment trial. This decision, he recognized, guarantees that he will endure political damage for casting a historic vote against the head of his own party:

Does anyone seriously believe I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me?

I write here not so much to laud Mitt Romney’s political choice but to explore the degree to which this afternoon was a Kantian coincidence: a classroom consideration of the categorical imperative just as it appeared in the wild on the Senate floor.

As we see above, Romney’s “conviction” springs from Utah-inflected Mormon faith rather than Königsberg-inflected Enlightenment reason. Right off the bat, it seems like his motivations are far from those recommended in the Groundwork. Something like the Kantian notion of “duty,” moreover, doesn’t appear in Romney’s speech. Instead, he calls his motivating principle some vague notion of “conscience”:

We have come to different conclusions, fellow Senators, but I trust we have all followed the dictates of our conscience.

Romney assures us that his fellow rational Senators all have access to “conscience”-based moral reasoning, although the “different conclusions” he references here don’t line up with Kant’s expectation of synthesizing universal moral rules. “Conscience” is a slippery term, too, one whose meaning and function has perplexed everyone from Shakespeare to Hannah Arendt and everyone between. Indeed, its lexicographical history predates both the specific religious oaths to which Romney appeals as well as Kant’s Enlightenment notion of a priori moral duty. It would be difficult, I think, to identify his “conscience” conclusively with either of these later concepts. (Even in ancient Latin texts, conscience or conscientia shows its protean character—it can denote the “common knowledge of many people” [TLL vol. IV 364.22] and some inner compulsion [TLL vol. IV 366.3]. Perhaps Romney himself isn’t entirely certain of what this “conscience” entails.) There is, I have to imagine, some misalignment between Romney’s juristic rationale and Kant’s system of universal moral reasoning.

This little evening consideration of senatorial motives, too, brought my mind back to Kant’s own admission of the difficulty in figuring out when people are acting out of duty rather than out of some kind of personal or subjective incentive. Considering a shopkeeper who “does not overcharge but keeps a fixed general price for everyone,” Kant tells us that the shopkeeper’s upright business practices are “not nearly enough for us to believe that the merchant acted in this way from duty and basic principles of honesty” (4:397). Sometimes outward actions don’t tell us much of anything about a person’s aims and motives.

As a matter of character evaluation, Kant hints at the barrier of inscrutability surrounding everyone’s psychology—we might never clearly perceive another’s motivations. This persistent psychological sphinx might invite a kind of cynicism, one that assumes the worst of politicians. After all, such a cynicism asks, does a senator ever really vote out of pained, conscientious deliberation, or should we always suspect some Machiavellian political calculus under every veneer of conviction and principle? It’s a corrosive outlook. As an alternative, in the face of mere psychological probability, in the face of a “conscience” and a “conviction” that we might not share as a fellow rational agent, we could entertain the possibility that someone did, in fact, act out of “basic principles” rather than against them, no?

decade cadence

During the past couple Decembers, I’ve listed five of my favorite recordings from the preceding year. It’s time to do the same as we resolve to the tonic for the decade:

Michael Tilson Thomas’ recording with the San Francisco Symphony of Charles Ives’ Symphonies 3 and 4 is a music history seminar in one album. I haven’t listened to a lot of Ives, but I found this collection of songs revelatory, with its ample supply of American folk and religious music that underlies Ives’ compositions. One of those albums that moves the composer from furniture music to an object of focused attention.

Esperanza Spalding’s 12 Little Spells was originally released in 2018, but an expanded version came out earlier this year. Some of the new material verges into the Björky, especially “Lest We Forget (blood),” still a really great song. But the whole album is a sonic smorgasbord—sometimes within one song, as in the title track—and it only cements Spalding’s upset win over J-Biebs as the crowning Grammy of the decade.

One of my jazz obsessions this year has been pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams, whose early self-titled album (1964) was reprinted on Smithsonian Folkways in 2019. The tracks on this disc appear on her later album Mary Lou Williams Presents Black Christ of the Andes, too. The choral harmonies on tracks like “St. Martin de Porres” and “The Devil” are so rich, flitting between traditional and almost avant-garde, like Duke Ellington and Brian Wilson made an album together.

Speaking of re-issues, a post on old-Internet-bulwark Metafilter sent me to Sora’s Re.sort, a guilty pleasure album of glitchy, collaged beach music originally released on CD in 2003 and re-released this year. Missed it then, happy to have stumbled upon it now. My affinity for this one might be some reflective nostalgia on the aughts, not even this present decade: it’s like an easy collaboration of The Books and Fennesz—the stuff I liked in college.

It’s appropriate, maybe, that one of the last great albums of the 2010s echoes one of the decade’s major losses and obsessively meditates upon a child’s death. That is, Nick Cave’s ambient, Eno-ish Ghosteen sounds like the 2010s have felt: for a lot of people and for a lot of reasons, it has been a long, even grievous ten years. Against that gloomy backdrop, it’s comforting and hopeful to hear repeated “I am beside you / Look for me” as we move into the 2020s—that there’s something good to keep our eyes out for. I wouldn’t call it the album of the decade, but reader, you might still call it your decade’s album.