Adonis Diaries

Archive for January 3rd, 2017

Research are plagued with studies ignoring cases that didn’t survive

Samples of population should include the cases that failed to survive, the failed projects, the patients who died taking the drug under testing and evaluation…

Otherwise, the study’s best resting place is the waste bin.

In survivorship bias you see only the survivors in any experiment, project or drug testing on patients.

In the intention-to-treat error, the failed projects show up in the wrong category that is not used to sample from.

For example, test subjects who didn’t “survive or failed” in the experiment tend to vanish from the sample.

Nun Gives Birth To Baby Boy In Italy

Agence France Presse  Posted this Jan. 17, 2014

A Salvadorean nun who said she had no idea she was pregnant gave birth in Italy this week after she felt stomach cramps in her convent and was rushed to hospital, Italian media reported on Friday.

The 31-year-old mother and her baby boy, who weighs 3.5 kilograms (7.7 pounds), are doing well and other new mothers in Rieti hospital have begun collecting clothes and donations for her, the reports said.

“I did not know I was pregnant. I only felt a stomach pain,” the nun was quoted as saying at the hospital, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.

La Repubblica said she gave birth on Wednesday.

ANSA said the nun had named her baby Francesco (Francis) — also the pope’s chosen title and one of the most popular names in Italy, where St Francis of Assisi is the much-loved national patron saint.

The hospital could not be reached for comment.

The nun belongs to the “Little Disciples of Jesus” convent in Campomoro near Rieti, which manages an old people’s home and reports said she would keep the baby.

Her fellow nuns were quoted saying they were “very surprised”.

Copyright (2014) AFP. All rights reserved.


The Onion Religion News Coverage

1 of 11


Best sold poets or prophets? Shakespeare,  Lao-tzu, Kahlil Gibran

I read the Prophet of Gibran long time ago, in its English original version, and I was not impressed then.

I am reading it now in a French version, translated by Anne Wade Minkowski with a preface by the Syrian poet Adonis. And I like it a lot.

In this preface, Adonis wrote:

“The Prophet was meant to flourish in man all that surpasses his comprehension and all that is larger than his grasp in intendment: Love, happiness, revolt and freedom”

The Lebanese author, Alexander Najjar, wrote a extensive biographical series for TV on Gibran, and I watched a few of them.

In fact, I’m contemplating posting abridged version of the 26 pieces, my own style, to conform with this mania of short attention span of social platforms in FB and twitter

 published an extensive essay on Gibran and the Prophet in The New Yorker in 2008.

Shakespeare, we are told, is the best-selling poet of all time.

Second is Lao-tzu.

Third is Kahlil Gibran, who owes his place on that list to one book “The Prophet”.

It is a collection of 26 prose poems, delivered as sermons by a fictional wise man in a faraway time and place.

Since its publication, in 1923, “The Prophet” has sold more than 9 million copies in its American edition alone. There are public schools named for Gibran in Brooklyn and Yonkers.

“The Prophet” has been recited at countless weddings and funerals. It is quoted in books and articles on training art teachers, determining criminal responsibility, and enduring ectopic pregnancy, sleep disorders, and the news that your son is gay. Its words turn up in advertisements for marriage counsellors, chiropractors, learning-disabilities specialists, and face cream.

“The Prophet” started fast—it sold out its first printing in a month—and then it got faster, until, in the nineteen-sixties, its sales sometimes reached five thousand copies a week. It was the Bible of that decade. But the book’s popularity should not be laid entirely at the door of the hippies.

“The Prophet” was a hit long before the sixties (it made good money even during the Depression), and sales after that decade have never been less than healthy—a record all the more impressive in that it is due almost entirely to word of mouth. Apart from a brief effort during the twenties, “The Prophet” has never been advertised.

Presumably in honor of this commercial feat, Everyman’s Library has now brought out “Kahlil Gibran: The Collected Works” ($27.50), with a pretty red binding and a gold ribbon for a bookmark.

While most people know Gibran only as the author of “The Prophet,” he wrote 17 books, nine in Arabic and eight in English.

The Everyman’s volume contains twelve of them.

The critics will no doubt greet it with the same indifference they have shown Gibran ever since his death, in 1931. Even his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, brushed him off.

When Knopf was asked, in 1965, who the audience for “The Prophet” was, he replied that he had no idea. “It must be a cult,” he said—an ungrateful response from the man to whom “The Prophet” had been a cash cow for more than 40 years.

In 1974, a cousin of the poet’s, also named Kahlil Gibran, and his wife, Jean, published a good biography, “Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World.”

Then, in 1998, came the more searching “Prophet: The Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran,” by Robin Waterfield, a translator of ancient Greek literature.

But until the first of those books appeared—that is, for 43 years after Gibran’s death—there was no proper biography of this hugely influential author.

Both Waterfield and the Gibrans complain about the literati’s lack of respect for their subject—Waterfield blames it on snobbery, “hard-hearted cynicism”—but the facts they dug up were not such as to improve his reputation.

Part of the reason there were no real biographies is that little was known about Gibran’s life, and the reason for that is that he didn’t want it known.

One point that seems firm is that he was born in Lebanon, in a village called Bsharri, in 1883.

At that time, Lebanon was part of Syria, which in turn was part of the Ottoman Empire. Gibran, by his account, was a brooding, soulful child. From his earliest years, he said, he drew constantly—painting was his first art and, for a long time, as important to him as writing—and he communed with nature.

When a storm came, he would rip off his clothes and run out into the torrent in ecstasy.

His mother, Kamileh, got others to leave her strange boy alone. “Sometimes,” Gibran later recalled, “she would smile at someone who came in . . . and lay her finger on her lip and say, ‘Hush. He’s not here.’ ”

Kamileh and Bhutros would not have failed to notice that Kahlil was spending all his time with people he did not introduce them to. They may also have worried about his exposure to Protestantism—they were Christians of the Maronite sect, allied with the Church of Rome—and, indeed, to Day, who was presumably homosexual.

In any case, Gibran, at the age of 15, was packed off to a Maronite college in Beirut.

In his three years there, he apparently decided that he might be a writer as well as a painter. He and a classmate founded a student literary magazine, and he was elected “college poet.”

In 1902 he returned to the South End, and to his family’s troubles. Two weeks before he landed in Boston, Sultana died, of tuberculosis, at the age of fourteen.

The following year, Bhutros died, also of t.b. (it was rife in the South End), and then Kamileh, of cancer.

Waterfield says that there is no evidence that Gibran mourned any of them for long. It is hard to escape the thought that this ambitious young man was not inconvenienced by the loss of his slum-dwelling family.

One member remained, however: his sister Marianna. She adored him, cooked his dinners, made his clothes, and supported the two of them on her earnings from the dressmaker’s shop. Gibran still took no job; art was his job.

Soon, he had something to show. Day held an exhibition of Gibran’s drawings in his studio in 1904. They were products of their time, or a slightly earlier time, that of the European Symbolist painters: Puvis de Chavannes, Eugène Carrière, Gustave Moreau.

Often, in the foreground, one saw a sort of pileup of faceless humanity, while in the background there hovered a Greater Power—an angel, perhaps, or just a sort of milky miasma, suggestive of mystery and the soul.

Gibran began publishing his writings as well: collections of stories and poems, parables and aphorisms.

He had been heavily exposed to Lebanon’s political problems: the warring among religious sects, the sufferings of the poor at the hands of a corrupt clergy and the distant Turkish overlords. (And the Famine Hecatomb (195-18) that befell most of Mount Lebanon and killed a third of the population)

Anger over this, and also pity—whether for Lebanese peasants or, quite often, for himself—were the main themes of his early writings. They were published in Arabic, and they won him great admiration in the Arab-American community. Not only was he standing up for his homeland; he was “making it” in America—and in art, not in drygoods.

Gibran’s father was not a good provider. He owned a walnut grove, but he didn’t like working it. He preferred drinking and gambling. He eventually got a job as a tax collector, but then he was arrested for embezzlement. Poor before, the family now became destitute.

In 1895, his mother Kamileh packed up her four children—Bhutros, Kahlil (then twelve), Marianna, and Sultana—and sailed to America. They settled in Boston, in the South End, a squalid ghetto filled with immigrants from various countries. (Today, it is Boston’s Chinatown.)

Kamileh, like many other Syrian immigrants, became a pack peddler; that is, she went door to door, selling lace and linens out of a basket she carried on her back. Within a year, she had put aside enough money to set Bhutros up in a drygoods store.

The two girls were sent out to work as seamstresses; neither ever learned to read or write. Kahlil alone was excused from putting food on the table. He went to school, for the first time.

He enrolled in an art class at a nearby settlement house, and through his teacher he was sent to a man named Fred Holland Day. In European art, this was the period of the Decadents.

Theosophy, espoused by Madame Blavatsky, became a craze. People went to séances, dabbled in drugs, and scorned the ugly-hearted West in favor of the more spiritual East. Above all, they made a religion of art.

Day, thirty-two years old and financially independent, was a leader of the Boston outpost of this movement. He wore a turban, smoked a hookah, and read by candlelight. He did serious work, however. He and his friends founded two arts magazines, and he was a partner in a publishing house that produced exquisite books.

By the 1890’s, Day’s main interest was photography. He particularly liked to photograph beautiful young boys of “exotic” origin, sometimes nude, sometimes in their native costumes, and he often recruited them from the streets of the South End. When the thirteen-year-old Gibran turned up at Day’s door, in 1896, he became one of the models.

Day was especially taken with Gibran. He made him his pupil and assistant, and he introduced him to the literature of the nineteenth century, the Romantic poets and their Symbolist inheritors.

Robin Waterfield, in his biography, says that this syllabus, with its emphasis on suffering, prophecy, and the religion of love, was the rock on which Gibran built his later style.

According to Waterfield, Day also gave Gibran his “pretensions.” Imagine what it was like for a child from the ghetto to walk into this world of comfort and beauty, a world, furthermore, where a person could make a life of art.

Fortuitously, Gibran already fitted into Day’s milieu in a small way: he was “Oriental.”

Day made a fuss over Gibran’s origins, treated him, Waterfield says, like a “Middle Eastern princeling.” Gibran looked the part. He was very handsome, and also reticent. A later mentor declared him a mystic, “a young prophet.” (This was before he had published anything professionally.) And so he began to see himself that way.

Soon, he had something to show.

Day held an exhibition of Gibran’s drawings in his studio in 1904. They were products of their time, or a slightly earlier time, that of the European Symbolist painters: Puvis de Chavannes, Eugène Carrière, Gustave Moreau. Often, in the foreground, one saw a sort of pileup of faceless humanity, while in the background there hovered a Greater Power—an angel, perhaps, or just a sort of milky miasma, suggestive of mystery and the soul.

Gibran began publishing his writings as well: collections of stories and poems, parables and aphorisms. He had been heavily exposed to Lebanon’s political problems: the warring among religious sects, the sufferings of the poor at the hands of a corrupt clergy and the distant Turkish overlords. Anger over this, and also pity—whether for Lebanese peasants or, quite often, for himself—were the main themes of his early writings.

They were published in Arabic, and they won him great admiration in the Arab-American community. Not only was he standing up for his homeland; he was “making it” in America—and in art, not in drygoods.

He enjoyed this, but he wanted a larger audience, and soon he found the person who would make that possible. Mary Haskell, the headmistress of a girls’ school in Boston, was a New Woman. She believed in long hikes, cold showers, and progressive politics.

Her school disdained Latin and Greek; it taught anatomy and current events instead. Before Gibran became close to Haskell, in 1908, he had a history of befriending older women who could be useful to him. Haskell, too, was older, by nine years. (She was also taller. Gibran was five feet three, a source of grief to him all his life.)

She was not rich, but by careful thrift—the school’s cook, who also had some wealthy employers, sneaked dinners to her from their kitchens—she managed to put aside enough money to support a number of deserving causes: a Greek immigrant boy who needed boarding-school tuition, and another Greek boy, at Harvard. Then she met Gibran, who would be her most expensive project.

In the beginning, her major benefaction to him was simply financial—she gave him money, she paid his rent. In 1908, she sent him to Paris for a year, to study painting. Before he went abroad, they were “just friends,” but once they were apart the talk of friendship turned to letters of love, and when Gibran returned to Boston they became engaged.

It was apparently agreed, though, that they would not marry until he felt he had established himself, and somehow this moment never came. Finally, Haskell offered to be his mistress. He wasn’t interested. In a painful passage in her diary, Haskell records how, one night, he said that she was looking thin.

On the pretext of showing him that she was actually well fleshed, she took off her clothes and stood before him naked. He kissed one of her breasts, and that was all. She got dressed again. She knew that he had had affairs with other women, but he claimed that he was not “sexually minded,” and furthermore that what she missed in their relationship was actually there.

When they were apart, he said, they were together. They didn’t need to have “intercourse”; their whole friendship was “a continued intercourse.”

More than sex or marriage, it seems, what Haskell wanted from Gibran was simply to be acknowledged as the woman in his life. As she told her diary, she wanted people to “know he loved me because it was the greatest honor I had and I wanted credit for it—wanted the fame of his loving me.” But he would not introduce her to his friends. “Poor Mary!” Waterfield says. Amen to that.

Later, Gibran told journalists many lies about his childhood, and, according to the Gibrans’ biography, he seems to have tried these out first on Haskell. He was of noble birth, he said. His father’s family had a palace in Bsharri, where they kept tigers for pets. His mother’s family was the richest in Lebanon. They owned immense properties, “whole towns.” He, as a young aristocrat, had been educated at home, by English, French, and German tutors

He was sure that a great destiny awaited him.

Mary believed this even more than he, and in the beginning her adulation was probably as important to him as her money. “Oh Glorious Kahlil!!” she wrote in her diary. “Transcendent, timeless spirit!”

When he read to her from an early book of his, she reported that “the invisible” gathered so thickly around her, “lights and sounds came from such far times and spaces, that from center to circumference I trembled with the excessive life-force”—a remarkable response, in view of the fact that the book was in Arabic, a language she did not then understand. She recorded the extraordinary experiences he told her he had had. For instance, he had intuited the theory of relativity before Einstein; he just hadn’t written it down. Thousands of times, he said, he had been sucked up into the air as dew, and “risen into clouds, then fallen as rain. . . . I’ve been a rock too, but I’m more of an air person.”

We don’t know how much of this Haskell believed. However godlike she found him, she was a schoolmistress, and she tried to educate him.

On the pretext of their having a nice literary evening together, she would get him to read to her from the classic authors, exactly as Fred Holland Day had done, and for the same reason—to improve his English. He profited from this, and of course resented it, as he resented the amount of money he had taken from her—by 1913, after five years of friendship, this came to $7,440, equal to almost a hundred and fifty thousand dollars today—but he didn’t tell her to stop writing the checks.

Soon after Gibran became “engaged” to Haskell, he told her that he was leaving town. Boston was a backwater. New York was where the action was. Clearly, he had another purpose as well: to get away from Haskell. He also needed to unload Marianna.

If he was to become a major artist, how was he going to explain that he lived with this illiterate woman who followed him around the house with a dust rag?

And so, in 1911, throwing off the two women who had supported him through his early period, Gibran moved to New York, and to his middle period. He found a studio apartment in an artists’ housing complex at 51 West Tenth Street. Haskell paid the rent, of course.

After a few years in New York, during which he published two more books in Arabic, Gibran made a serious decision: he was going to begin writing in English. To do this, he needed Haskell’s help, and she rushed to give it.

When they were apart, he sent her his manuscripts, and she sent back corrections. When they were together—she visited him often (sleeping elsewhere)—he dictated his work to her.

She wrote in her diary that if, during that process, “we come to a part that I question, we stop then and there.” Who resolved the question? We don’t know. She said that “he always gave every idea, and I simply found the phrases sometimes.” But finding the phrases is a large part of writing.

For Gibran’s first English-language publication, a brief poem, Haskell sent him seven pages of proposed corrections. She probably made substantial changes in his later work as well. Proud of this responsible role in his life, she gave up hoping for more.

In 1926, with no objections from Gibran, she married a rich relative. But at night, after her husband went to bed, she would work on Gibran’s manuscripts. Until he died, she edited all his English-language books. With the third of these, “The Prophet,” he hit pay dirt.

What made “The Prophet” so fantastically successful?

At the opening of the book, we are told that Almustafa, a holy man, has been living in exile, in a city called Orphalese, for twelve years. (When “The Prophet” was published, Gibran had been living in New York, in “exile” from Lebanon, for twelve years.) A ship is now coming to take him back to the island of his birth.

Saddened by his departure, people gather around and ask him for his final words of wisdom—on love, on work, on joy and sorrow, and so forth. He obliges, and his lucubrations on these matters occupy most of the book. Almustafa’s advice is not bad: love involves suffering; children should be given their independence. Who, these days, would say otherwise? More than the soundness of its advice, however, the mere fact that “The Prophet” was an advice book—or, more precisely, “inspirational literature”—probably insured a substantial readership at the start.

Gibran’s closest counterpart today is the Brazilian sage Paulo Coelho, and his books have sold nearly a hundred million copies.

Then, there is the pleasing ambiguity of Almustafa’s counsels. In the manner of horoscopes, the statements are so widely applicable (“your creativity,” “your family problems”) that almost anyone could think that they were addressed to him. At times, Almustafa’s vagueness is such that you can’t figure out what he means.

If you look closely, though, you will see that much of the time he is saying something specific; namely, that everything is everything else. Freedom is slavery; waking is dreaming; belief is doubt; joy is pain; death is life. So, whatever you’re doing, you needn’t worry, because you’re also doing the opposite.

Such paradoxes, which Gibran had used for years to keep Haskell out of his bed, now became his favorite literary device. They appeal not only by their seeming correction of conventional wisdom but also by their hypnotic power, their negation of rational processes.

Also, the book sounds religious, which it is, in a way. Gibran was familiar with Buddhist and Muslim holy books, and above all with the Bible, in both its

It is a novel of sorts, a collection of 79 statements by people remembering Christ.

Some of the speakers are known to us—Pontius Pilate, Mary Magdalene—but others are inventions: a Lebanese sheepherder, a Greek apothecary. They all speak as if they were being interviewed.

Though Gibran thought of himself as an admirer of all religions, he had an obsession with Jesus.

He told Haskell that Jesus came to him in dreams. The two of them ate watercress together, and Jesus told him special things—for example, parables that didn’t make it into the Gospels.

On occasion, Gibran clearly saw himself as Jesus, and presumably it was this that inspired his unwise decision, in “Jesus, the Son of Man,” to rewrite long sections of the Bible, for example, the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in earth and heaven, sacred is Thy name. Thy will be done with us, even as in space.”

Much of the book transcends such follies, however.

Gibran at one time had hoped to be a playwright, and “Jesus” shows a gift for characterization and “voice”—an insistence, for the moment, on one speaker’s point of view—that saves the book from his habitual gassiness. Also, however much he imagined himself as Jesus, in this book alone he drops the oracular tone that is so oppressive in the rest of his work. A number of the speakers have complaints about Jesus.

Judas is allowed to justify his crime: “I thought He had chosen me a captain of His chariots, and a chief man of His warriors.” Judas’s disgraced mother is given a dignified and moving speech: “I beg you to question me no further about my son. I loved him and I shall love him forevermore. If love were in the flesh I would burn it out with hot irons and be at peace. But it is in the soul, unreachable. And now I would speak no more. Go question another woman more honored than the mother of Judas. Go to the mother of Jesus.” Hard words.

In contrast to “The Prophet,” which received few and tepid reviews, “Jesus, the Son of Man” was praised by critics, but these were mostly newspaper critics. While the literary journals paid some attention to Gibran early on, they eventually dropped him. This is no surprise. His leading traits—idealism, vagueness, sentimentality—were exactly what the young writers of the twenties were running away from. Consequently, he did not make the scene with Manhattan’s better class of artists. He seldom turns up in literary memoirs of the period. Edmund Wilson, in his journal of the twenties, says that “Gibran the Persian” was at a dinner party that a friend of his attended. That’s the only mention he gets.

But, if the artists of the time were throwing off idealism and sentiment, ordinary people were not. They wanted to hear about their souls, and Sinclair Lewis was not obliging them.

Hence the popularity of “The Prophet” with the general public. After its publication, Gibran received bags of fan mail. He was also besieged by visitors, mostly female. Interestingly, in view of his hunger for fame, he did not enjoy these attentions. He took to spending months of the year in Boston, with Marianna, and, though he was now making money, he didn’t change his way of living, or even his apartment. He remained in his one-room studio to the end of his life. Apparently, its monastic simplicity pleased him. He called it the Hermitage and lit it with candles.

His reclusiveness increased as his productivity decreased. After “Jesus, the Son of Man,” he was more or less played out. He produced two more books in English, but they were tired little things, and the reviewers said so. When Gibran was in Paris, he met Rodin, and he later claimed that the famous old sculptor had called him “the William Blake of the twentieth century.” This tribute was probably of Gibran’s manufacture, not Rodin’s, but people at Knopf liked it, and so it was bannered on Gibran’s publicity flyers. (Rodin couldn’t protest; he was dead.) After “The Prophet,” the critics, already annoyed by that book’s popularity, threw the phrase back in Gibran’s face. “Blake?” they asked.

By his forties, Gibran was a sick man. He had long complained of a periodic illness, which he called the flu. Now he decided that the malady was not in his body but in his soul

There was a great book inside him—greater than “The Prophet”—but he couldn’t get it out. He had another difficulty: alcoholism, a situation that may have developed soon after “The Prophet” was published, or while he was writing it. Robin Waterfield thinks that Gibran’s basic problem may have been a feeling of hypocrisy, in that his life so contradicted his pose as a holy man. In his last years, he stayed closed up in his apartment, occasionally receiving a worthy visitor but mostly drinking arak, a Syrian liquor that Marianna sent to him, apparently by the gallon.

By the spring of 1931, he was bedridden, and one morning the woman who brought him his breakfast decided that his condition was dangerous. Gibran was taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where he died later that day. The cause of death was recorded as “cirrhosis of the liver with incipient tuberculosis.” Waterfield reports that Gibran’s admirers have greatly stressed the tuberculosis over the cirrhosis. “Nothing incipient kills people,” he objects. His speculation seems to be that Gibran drank himself to death out of a sense of fraudulence and failure.

A black comedy ensued. After mobbed memorial services in New York and Boston, Marianna took the body to Lebanon for burial, as Gibran had wished. In Beirut, the casket was opened, and the minister of education pinned a medal on Gibran’s chest. Then began the eighty-mile trek to Bsharri, with an honor guard of three hundred. The road was lined with

townspeople, Jean and Kahlil Gibran report in their biography: “Young men in native dress brandished swords and dancing women scattered perfume and flowers before the hearse.”

Gibran’s will dictated that Marianna be given his money; Haskell his manuscripts and paintings; and the town of Bsharri all future American royalties on the books published during his lifetime. This last provision produced so many difficulties that it was cited in an American textbook on copyright law.

Who, among the people in Bsharri, was going to decide how this money would be distributed? Gibran had said that it was to be spent on good causes. To evaluate them, an administrative committee, with members from each of the town’s seven leading families, was set up, but this created further problems. “Families split apart in the clamor to win a committee position,” Time reported. “Age-old feuds gained new fury, and at least two deaths resulted.” Meanwhile, the funds were disappearing.

The situation became such a scandal that in 1967 Knopf started withholding the royalties, which at that point amounted to three hundred thousand dollars a year. Marianna eventually sued Bsharri to win control of the copyrights; the judgment went to the Bsharrians, though, in the process, their legacy was substantially reduced, because the fee that their Lebanese-American lawyer had negotiated with them was an astonishing twenty-five per cent of future royalties. The Bsharrians then sued the lawyer, and they lost.

In the end, the Lebanese government intervened and, reportedly, put Gibran’s estate to rights. His coffin rests in a deconsecrated monastery—Mar Sarkis, in Bsharri—that he chose for that purpose. Robin Waterfield has visited it. He says that he found a crack in the cover of the casket and that, when he looked into it, he saw straight through to the back—in other words, that the body had disappeared. This seems a fitting, if sad, conclusion. As Gibran’s mother said, “Hush. He’s not here.”

January 7, 2008 Issue

 has written for The New Yorker, reviewing dance and books, since 1992, and became the magazine’s dance critic in 1998.

Bringing Philosophy to prisoners

Damon Horowitz teaches philosophy through the Prison University Project, bringing college-level classes to inmates of San Quentin State Prison.

Meet Tony. He’s my student. He’s about my age, and he’s in San Quentin State Prison.

When Tony was 16 years old, one day, one moment, “It was mom’s gun. Just flash it, scare the guy. He’s a punk. He took some money; we’ll take his money. That’ll teach him. Then last minute, I’m thinking, ‘Can’t do this. This is wrong.’ My buddy says, ‘C’mon, let’s do this.’ I say, ‘Let’s do this.'” And those three words, Tony’s going to remember, because the next thing he knows, he hears the pop. There’s the punk on the ground, puddle of blood. And that’s felony murder — 25 to life, parole at 50 if you’re lucky, and Tony’s not feeling very lucky.

0:53 So when we meet in my philosophy class in his prison and I say, “In this class, we will discuss the foundations of ethics,” Tony interrupts me. “What are you going to teach me about right and wrong? I know what is wrong. I have done wrong. I am told every day, by every face I see, every wall I face, that I am wrong. If I ever get out of here, there will always be a mark by my name. I’m a convict; I am branded ‘wrong.’ What are you going to tell me about right and wrong?”

 I say to Tony, “Sorry, but it’s worse than you think. You think you know right and wrong? Then can you tell me what wrong is? No, don’t just give me an example. I want to know about wrongness itself, the idea of wrong. What is that idea? What makes something wrong? How do we know that it’s wrong? Maybe you and I disagree. Maybe one of us is wrong about the wrong. Maybe it’s you, maybe it’s me — but we’re not here to trade opinions; everyone’s got an opinion. We are here for knowledge. Our enemy is thoughtlessness. This is philosophy.”

And something changes for Tony. “Could be I’m wrong. I’m tired of being wrong. I want to know what is wrong. I want to know what I know.” What Tony sees in that moment is the project of philosophy, the project that begins in wonder — what Kant called “admiration and awe at the starry sky above and the moral law within.”

What can creatures like us know of such things?

It is the project that always takes us back to the condition of existence — what Heidegger called “the always already there.”

It is the project of questioning what we believe and why we believe it — what Socrates called “the examined life.” Socrates, a man wise enough to know that he knows nothing. Socrates died in prison, his philosophy intact.

Tony starts doing his homework. He learns his whys and wherefores, his causes and correlations, his logic, his fallacies. Turns out, Tony’s got the philosophy muscle. His body is in prison, but his mind is free.

Tony learns about the ontologically promiscuous, the epistemologically anxious, the ethically dubious, the metaphysically ridiculous. That’s Plato, Descartes, Nietzsche and Bill Clinton.

2:59 So when he gives me his final paper, in which he argues that the categorical imperative is perhaps too uncompromising to deal with the conflict that affects our everyday and challenges me to tell him whether therefore we are condemned to moral failure, I say, “I don’t know. Let us think about that.” Because in that moment, there’s no mark by Tony’s name; it’s just the two of us standing there.

It is not professor and convict, it is just two minds ready to do philosophy. And I say to Tony, “Let’s do this.”

Patsy Z and TEDxSKE shared a link.
Damon Horowitz teaches philosophy through the Prison University Project, bringing college-level classes to inmates of San Quentin State Prison.|By Damon Horowitz




January 2017

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