Robert Paul Wolff, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has a delightful blog called “The Philosopher’s Stone.” A few days ago, he wrote an enchanting little post that he has allowed me to re-post here:
Inasmuch as today is my seventy-seventh birthday, I feel an obligation to pass on to you youngsters some of the great wisdom I have acquired in more than three-quarters of a century. That, I believe, is the traditional role of the old men and women of the tribe as they sit around the fire in the evening. The readers of this blog are the closest thing I have to a tribe, so herewith a pearl of wisdom. As is appropriate on such occasions, I begin with a story from long ago.
Back in the early seventies [when the late unlamented Richard Nixon was as yet an undisgraced president], I was sitting around with several UMass colleagues gossiping, as was our wont, about a mutual friend. He had just been elevated from the faculty to a Deanship, and we were speculating about what sort of administrator he would be. Since he had not even served as a Department Chair, we had no track record on which to base our speculations, so we were very much at a loss. Then Zina Tillona, a Professor of Italian in the Romance Languages Department [since phased out as part of a long, tragic world-wide assault on the Humanities] offered a bit of folk wisdom that, with the benefit of many years of hindsight, I now recognize as truly profound.
“Well,” she said, “most people do most things the way they do most other things.”
At first, what she said struck me as being very close to tautological, but as I reflected on it, I began to realize the deep insight of that simple remark. People have styles of behavior, modes of interacting with the world, that are grounded in their character, and a person’s style of being manifests itself in small things as much as in large. If a person is perpetually late, lingering with a student in her office rather than promptly moving on to the next student on her appointment list, she will probably continue to be late when it is Deans and Provosts she is dealing with. If a professor’s desk is neat and cleared of all papers, with six pencils lined up in a row, their newly sharpened points exactly aligned, then he will almost certainly be punctilious, precise, and obsessively complete in his scholarly work.
I thought of Zina’s maxim when trying to puzzle out the political ambitions and intentions of SarahPalin. Would she run for the Republican presidential nomination? Did she even want to be president? One of my sons, to whom I had long since passed on Zina’s folk wisdom, recalled it for me, and went on to suggest that it held the answer to my questions. Palin has held three significant positions in her life: mayor of Alaska, Chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Commission, and Governor of Alaska. She walked away from the second and third, each time because she saw an opportunity to maximize her fame and personal wealth. She clearly had no interest in actually being Governor of Alaska, nor is there the slightest indication that she wanted actually to be, or even had any idea what was involved in being, Vice-President of the United States. Since most people do most things the way they do most other things, she will almost certainly run for the nomination, because that is the best way to remain famous and to develop new money-making opportunities without working for them. But should she have early successes in the 2012 primaries, as well she may, she will find some way, before the nomination process is complete, to drop out of the race, presenting herself as a victim of all manner of plots and prejudices. Indeed, even if she secures the nomination, it is a virtual certainty that she will quit the race before she is defeated on election day. That this will cause chaos in the Republican Party will be of no concern to her, for at no time in her entire career has she ever exhibited the slightest loyalty to anyone or anything beyond her own immediate interest.
Since Zina’s maxim has universal application, it is only fair to ask how it applies to me. Well, if you were to ask my wife how I do things, she would almost certainly answer, “fast.” I do everything fast, and hence, of course, sometimes sloppily. When I cook, I rush through the recipe, with the result that although I make dinner quickly, I sometimes omit an ingredient. I make on-line reservations very quickly, with the result that sometimes I make them for the wrong day! True to Zina’s maxim, I do big things the same way I do small things. In the case of both of my marriages, I fell in love more or less instantly and knew just as quickly that I wanted to marry [happily, I did not in each of those cases omit an important ingredient.] I write books quickly, as readers of my Memoir will know, but I am a sloppy scholar. Indeed, I am really no sort of scholar at all. As soon as I have seized the central idea of my narrative, I am ready to write. The long slog through the secondary literature is not for me. I am more attracted by Vincent van Gogh, completing a painting in a single afternoon, than by the old masters who carefully sketched charcoal outlines, did preliminary sketches, and then painstakingly completed their canvases. I am impatient to a fault, considering a day more than enough time for anyone to respond to a letter or an email message.
Erik Erikson has a wonderful passage in CHILDHOOD AND SOCIETY in which he observes that people have styles in dreaming, quite independently of the content or meaning of the dreams. Some people have spare, monochromatic dreams; others dream in technicolor, their dreamworld filled with objects. A patient may go through deep emotional changes, but his or her style of dreaming remains unaltered. In much the same way, politicians have ways of being, and it is in vain that we expect experience to change them. Character is destiny, as Heraclitus observed some while ago, and character does not change.
So, there you have it — my thought for my natal day. Most people do most things the way they do most other things.