What Else Matters? Friendship and David McKnight

By Dr. Norris Frederick
Part Two

David McKnight playing on 9th Street, Durham, NC, about 2008
Photo by Bill Pope

In Part One (which you can read here), I wrote about my friendship with David McKnight, beginning in the mid-60’s with high school, where he was voted “Most Likely to Succeed,” until the mid 90’s when I lost track of him.  I eventually heard from friends that he was living in the Triangle, back and forth between Raleigh and Chapel Hill and Durham, homeless. He played his violin as beautifully as ever, but now on the streets.  And stories came back to me that David’s was indeed experiencing mental health challenges.

In this second post, I want to continue to examine the nature of friendship, by extending the story to the middle of later years of David’s life, and by expanding the circle of his friendships.  This is going to take me more space and time than I anticipated, so there will be one more post after this one.

A Quick Review

Aristotle confirms the deep value we place on friendship when he writes that no one would want to live without friends, no matter what other goods we have.  He writes that friendship is love for each other, “reciprocated goodwill.”[1] Since we love people for different kinds of reasons, we have three different kinds of friendship, based on what is useful or pleasing or good.[2] The first two by themselves are incomplete forms of friendship, while the friendship based on what is good is the basis for a complete friendship, which does include the first two types, also.

“Now those who love each other for their utility do not love each other for themselves but in virtue of some good which they get from each other.”[3]  What we love in such relationships is what is good for ourselves.  We love the usefulness of the friend; we do not love the person for who he is.  It’s the mutuality of this usefulness that makes it friendship.

David:  Music and Friendship

Through his musical genius, David was highly useful to his friends.  (That musical ability also was a way in which he made new friends.)  He was useful to the musician friends he joined to create groups, adding a richness and variety and creativity that both broadened and deepened their music and appeal.  And his music was also pleasing to his band members and to friends who listened to the music, either live or recorded.    Watch and listen to David’s violin playing with the group “Triangle” in the 1979 video clip below (especially at the end of the clip, but listen throughout) and see if you agree with me that it is both pleasing to you and useful to the band. [If video does not open for you in this post, you can watch at the link below.]

“Wasting Your Time,” by the group Triangle (David McKnight on violin, Pattie Le Sueur, and Jack Le Sueur), a clip from the 1979 video; full song, (composed by Jack Le Sueur) is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTSOP5rcB2g ]

For me this song is “pleasing” in a very deep sense, deeply moving.  I can’t imagine it being without Jack’s writing and singing, without Pattie’s beautiful and amazing voice, and without David’s haunting violin.  The words are haunting as well, making me think about whether I am “wasting my time,” which is a very useful thing to think about. I will wager that David did not think he was wasting his time as he played it, but instead found himself totally immersed in the song as he chose the path of being a musician.  And the words in this 1979 song eerily address the future life of David:

“Somebody tell me, the price I must pay,
  In love and in money, to make my own way.”

David played with Pattie and Jack Le Sueur beginning about 1975.  “We had a great four- or five-year run, and David was such a good fiddle player,” Pattie says in the Indy story about David.  “But this was before David really started exhibiting signs of what would later prove to be declining mental health.”[4]

The group Cleaver Smith & Swenson also found David’s musical ability beneficial to them.  As the group Facebook page states, “David McKnight, an experienced violinist and fiddle player, joined the group in 1984 during a break between sets at a club in Durham, NC. After literally just passing by on the street, the music drew him in and he asked if he could sit on the next set. That was all it took. ‘Everything just clicked.’ David’s many original songs and upbeat instrumentals, which showcase his versatile fiddle and guitar playing, added yet another facet to the band’s sound and ‘down home’ persona.”[5]

Band member Robert Smith writes, “We were taking a break on the sidewalk and David walked by and asked to join us.  We went back inside and played a song I had recently written.  David played an amazing violin solo that knocked everyone out.  From then on, David played with us.  He wrote many songs, instrumental and with vocals that we played.”[6] 

A song written by David in 1986, “I’m Back in Texas Again,” with David as lead vocal, guitar, violin, and piano, captures for me not only one type of his music, but David himself:

From the album “Changin’ My Mind,” by Cleaver Smith Swenson & McKnight, You Tube.  David McKnight, Bill Cleaver (Guitar, Harmonies), Joe Swenson (Bass, Harmonies), Robert Smith (Harmonies), David Spencer (Guitart), Bill Erchul (Pedal Steel Guitar), Tim Rae (Percussion).  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h61BVwdNlVQ&list=PLIpkbtRUqjri_JOnjjMIFppudnQeIpJeC

David:  Genial, Funny, Creative, Knowledgeable

It wasn’t just David’s musical ability that was pleasing to people when he was on playing on the street.  Alan Wolf, who himself had experience in Europe playing as a street musician, commented that David as a street musician had some amazing “hooks” to draw in the audience:

A clip from “Memories ‘of David McKnight on Ninth St., Durham ,and ‘Mecklenburg Waltz,’ ” by William Erwin, CelebrationVideos.com”  https://vimeo.com/199855940

I found David to be an astoundingly genial, funny, creative and knowledgeable person.  He was unique.  About 2014, when I had not seen David for several years, we emailed to set up a day and time to have lunch at Dain’s, on 9th Street in Durham.  David let me know he was inviting Bill Yaeger, a longtime Durham friend.  Bill and I got there first, and we had a few minutes to chat.  Bill told about both his friendship with David and also the challenges David presented.  I saw David coming in the front door, walking slowly with a folding stool he carried so he could sit down and rest whenever necessary.  His hair had become grayer, and he was heavier than I last saw him.  But when he saw me he broke into that familiar inviting smile, and he came over and gave me a big hug.

We sat back down in the booth, where a couple of David’s other friends had joined us, and I asked if everyone was ready to order.  “I’m not that hungry,” David said, “so I’m not going to order anything.”  I replied that since I was honored to be seeing David at Dain’s for the first time, I was going to buy.  “Well, in that case,” he said, “I think I will get something.”  And he polished off a hearty meal, joining me and the others in having a beer.

As we all sat and talked, David’s personal gifts were vivid, refreshing my memory.  He listened to what others had to say, responded well, and worked in several good jokes.  I believe that one person at our table was German, and David at point switched seamlessly into fluent German. Then as the conversation went on, something prompted David to start talking about his trips to various towns in the United States named Charlotte, the same as our hometown.  As he talked about Charlotte, Michigan, and his visit there, he began to rattle off facts about that town, its history, its old courthouse that had been turned into a museum, and conversations he’d had with residents.  As he was going on, Bill Yaeger caught my eye, and smiled, and nodded as if to say, “he’s amazing, and he’s not just making this up.”  Sure enough, when I got back to Charlotte, I googled the other Charlotte and found David was right on target.

So it’s clear that in many ways David had many friends in the types of friendship based on his benefiting and pleasing others.  And they clearly were beneficial and pleasing to him, too.  The groups provided a way to earn some money, get food and drink, and to enjoy comradeship with good folks.  And as I’ll write in the next post, they were a refuge for David.  But were they complete friendships, in Aristotle’s sense?

Mental Illness and Complete Friendship

Unlike friendship based on utility or pleasure, Aristotle writes, in a complete friendship we “wish good things to [our] friends for the friends’ own sakebecause of themselves.”[7]  In a complete friendship, our friend feels the same way toward us. And we are also “both unconditionally good and beneficial to each other.”[8]

What does it mean that in a complete friendship we are “both unconditionally good and beneficial to each other”? Sometimes it’s helpful to carve out the boundaries of a concept by showing what is on the other side, what does not fit within the concept.  For example, if we are friends and you ask me to procure heroin for you, and I do so because I want you to have what you want, procuring the heroin is not what is good or beneficial for you in the long term, for either your physical health or your developing self-control, so that is not a complete friendship. A complete friendship is based on what is good.  Likewise, if I cannot control my anger and periodically erupt and hit you, again that doesn’t fit under complete friendship, and I lack an appropriate use of anger.  If I hit you periodically, certainly if I do so for no reason, I’m not doing something for your good.  Or, to take it one step further, we could not be complete friends with an evil person.   What, I ask you, would it look like to be complete friends with Hitler?

In a complete friendship, for Aristotle, each friend is alike in excellence (virtue) and “each alike wishes good things to the other insofar as he is good, and each is intrinsically good.”[9]  As one commentator writes about Aristotle, the friends in a complete friendship are “fully good and virtuous people.”[10]

It was difficult for people to be complete friends (in Aristotle’s sense) with David, due in large part to his mental challenges. When David and I were friends in high school, I knew he was eccentric.  As time when on, certainly by the time he was homeless, it became clear he was dealing with serious challenges.  While it’s not clear whether he was diagnosed as such, several people who knew him think he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.  Regardless of a formal diagnosis, his behavior at times made him very difficult for his friends and family.  David’s sister Carson says, “He refused treatment. He refused to take his medicine. I think it was because he thought it would interfere with his ability to play.”[11]

The paranoia showed up in various ways.  One of the more persistent ones was that some conspirators – the Democratic party, or perhaps the Kennedys – had surreptitiously altered the vote count in that 1978 Democratic Senate primary in which David finished 5th of 8 candidates after walking all the way across the state.  A friend says, “He thought ‘The West Wing’ stole his song as their theme song.  He did have that fixation with numbers and history and even baseball and would link them together into some theme or conspiracy.  He would see photos in the newspaper and think they all reminded him of friends.  He saw words from songs I had written in newspapers and thought that meant something.”

I lived in Charlotte, and David in the Triangle area, so I was not dealing with him on a day to day basis like his friends and co-musicians, but I could sometimes see the paranoia and unevenness in his letters and emails.  One 2007 email was delightful, with the same corny and funny punning he did in high school, responding to my inquiry about ordering a CD he and Bruce Emery had produced:  “I Kant imagine doing otherwise.” The next email, one of “McKnight’s Essays,” as he titled his more formal emails which he often sent both to friends and to newspapers, never mentioned David specifically, but it clearly was about how he was being treated unfairly and why he could not find a job in journalism. “Now we hear that the Democratic Party in North Carolina and nationally  has worked out a scheme by which former working members of the press can be kept underemployed or unemployed while being goaded, prodded or otherwise subjected to partisan political pressure to devote all their literary, journalistic or artistic energies toward the promotion of only one of the two political parties in this country, and I am sure you can guess which one!”[12]

Another email focused on a “technological stranglehold” by powerful organizations,  and then moved on to argue that Kinko’s was conspiring against him and the smaller colleges.  The reason?  Because he had tried to send an email at two different computers at a Kinko’s about a Davidson College croquet match, and the email did not go through either time!

All of us who knew David have our own stories, sometimes converging, sometimes diverging.  Carson remembers “not knowing which David you were going to get.”  One musician friend says that he got the “good David” 95% of the time and that he showed up on time for every gig except once or twice when the bus carrying David was running behind.  Another says that at first David “mostly showed up on time.  Then, it became hit or miss.  We couldn’t count on him.  We had to have sets with and without David made up ahead of time.”

And living on the streets as he did, David and his clothes were sometimes dirty and smelly.

So, David is a long way from being one party in Aristotle’s ideal of a complete friendship, in which each person is perfectly excellent and virtuous. David didn’t always keep his commitments, he could get angry irrationally (such as at Kinko’s), and perhaps didn’t have sufficient pride in his appearance and cleanliness (easy to say from someone not homeless). But perhaps the problem also lies in Aristotle’s definition of a complete friendship.  One of the strengths of Aristotle’s approach to philosophy is that he bases his ideas on a process of observation and then thinking about the best way to describe and evaluate those observations.  That’s how he came up with the idea of the three types of friendship.  And we know and experience all three:  friendships which are based primarily on mutual usefulness, or mutual pleasure, or those much rarer ones which are complete friendships. 

However, in asking for perfect virtue/excellence for those in a complete friendship, Aristotle has gone beyond what observation shows, and he has set too high a standard.  I don’t know any perfect people, and I know for sure I am not one. 

Aristotle is right, I think, that the friends in a complete friendship must have some key virtues.  Who could be complete friends with a truly evil person?  If a person doesn’t show any loyalty to me, or at key times does not show loyalty, how could that person be my friend? And if a person breaks too many promises to me, I will no longer consider that person a complete friend.  There’s no magic number about how many broken promises a friend can make, but we can make reasoned judgments about such situations.

Next time I will try to capture some of the love and joy David’s friends found in him, as well as a sense of the depth and reality of David’s friendships in the next and final (I’m pretty sure) post on David.

In the meantime, keep with you the image of David singing this brief song he wrote, “The Transit Referendum Ditty.”

[If video does not open for you in this post, you can watch at the link below.]

Vote for the Transit Referendum Ditty – David McKnight
Posted by Dan Jewell on YouTube, Nov 8, 2011

Next time:  David’s friendships and David’s last years


[1] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 8, chapter 2, translated and notes by C.D.C. Reeve (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 2014).

[2] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 8, chapter 2, Reeve.

[3] Book 8, chapter 3, W.D. Ross translation (The Internet Classics        Archive, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html )

[4] Ken Fine, “A Requiem for David McKnight: Prodigy, Journalist, Politician, Homeless Street Musician,” in Indy Week (online version),  Jan. 18, 2017, , http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/a-requiem-for-david-mcknight-prodigy-journalist-politician-homeless-street-musician/Content?oid=5100256&showFullText=true

[5] https://www.facebook.com/pg/CSSMusic/about/?ref=page_internal accessed August 13, 2018.

[6] Robert Smith email to Norris Frederick, August 14, 2018.

[7] Book 8, chapter 3, Reeve, emphasis added.

[8] Book 8, chapter 3, Reeve.

[9] Book 8, chapter 3? (p.139), Reeve.

[10] Reeve note to Nichomachean Ethics, p. 315.

[11] Fine, Indy Week.

[12] July 16, 2007, email, “McKnight’s Essays”

What Else Matters? Friendship

by Dr. Norris Frederick
Third in a series

“No one would choose to live without friends,
even if he had all the other good things.”
–  Aristotle[1]

David McKnight
1966 high school yearbook

Aristotle is right: who would want to live a life without friends?  We especially realize that when a friend moves away and most vividly when a friend dies.  In January of 2017, my friend David McKnight passed away.  A man who already had endured many steep challenges in his life, he had been diagnosed in November with a massive and inoperable brain tumor.  When the news came about the brain tumor, it seemed to foretell the sad end of a tragic life.  Was it?  Let me tell the story of David and of some of his friendships, and you be the judge.

Halcyon Days

David wrote the sports column in our Garinger High School paper, was voted in 1966 the senior guy “Most Likely to Succeed,” and was a finalist for the highly esteemed Morehead Scholarship to UNC – Chapel Hill.  Perhaps my earliest memory of him is from Miss Mary Balle’s English class, where we read Chaucer, Shakespeare and all the greatest hits of Brit Lit.  David was always full of energy, unable to repress his bad puns which we all secretly loved.  Once he somehow turned a class discussion to a question of responsibility about actions just so he could say, “It’s neither my Faulk-ner yours that It happened.”  All of us, including Miss Balle, groaned, and then we all laughed.  The memory makes me smile.

He and I played tennis matches near his house, at Midwood Park. The tennis was fun, but David’s running commentary before, during, and after the match turned the game into struggles both hilarious and grand beyond words:  Beowulf vs. Grindel, Rod Laver vs. Ken Rosewall, madness vs. King Lear.

The Guy Most Likely to Succeed was accepted at prestigious Duke University.  There he could continue his virtuoso violin, his study of multiple languages, history, journalism and whatever else struck his fancy.  It looked like a cloudless blue sky.

David McKnight and Sybil Huskey
Most Likely to Succeed Garinger High 1966

A Few Clouds, Heroism, and Ah, Youth

Then there were surprises I never saw coming.  David became the guy wearing the Duke Blue Devil costume at basketball games. Still full of hilarious and grand stories.  Like the exam he refused to take because of a difference of opinion with the professor, thus an F.  More F’s.  Ultimately an unfinished college career in which every course earned either an A or an F, according to David.  He did not want a high-brow college education, he wanted a life of the rough and tumble of journalism.

After leaving Duke, he told me one day in 1968 that he had decided to fly to Czechoslovakia to report on the Prague Spring  liberalizations in that Communist country.  Given the threat of an invasion by the Soviet Union, the decision seemed both sudden and perilous.  The next day I put him on a plane to Prague. He carried his manual typewriter in its case, and a gym bag containing a change of underwear and one clean shirt – that was it.  It was crazy.  And, I thought, heroic.

He published some fine stories on that trip, came back and got jobs with newspapers in Durham, Greensboro, and then in Fayetteville, where another of our close high-school friends lived.  When my wife and I visited there, David and I played tennis in the hot summer morning sun.  We all drank Tequila Sunrises afterwards.  It was grand.  That night we all rode around the town, David with his beautiful and accomplished fiancée.  We passed by a Fayetteville structure resembling the Eiffel Tower, and David cracked us up with, “When I saw the tower, I-fallaciously thought we were in Paris.” We were young, life was good.

Reflections on Friendship

Philosophy begins with questions and problems that arise from our experience. As I look back on these early years of my friendship with David, as I wonder about what friendship really is and whether I really was David’s friend, my questions transport me from memory, narrative and emotion to more analytical thoughts about our relationship.  Aristotle’s observations and thoughts about friendship, written over 2,300 years ago, are still helpful today.

Aristotle writes that friendship is love for each other, “reciprocated goodwill.”[2]  We love people for different kinds of reasons, so we have three different kinds of friendship, based on what is useful or pleasing or good.[3]

“Now those who love each other for their utility do not love each other for themselves but in virtue of some good which they get from each other.”[4] The idea of a “friendship” being based on usefulness to one another might seem base, but think about a friend at work or a neighbor:  you wish well to and feel affection for one another, but the cooperation and alliances form the basis of the relationship.  These relationships may go no further than utility and tend not to last very long once the usefulness goes away, as we change workplaces or neighbors.  What we love in such relationships is what is good for ourselves.  We love the usefulness of the friend; we do not love the person for who he is.

The same is true for friendships based on pleasure.  We enjoy our witty friend because of the pleasure she gives us, not for the person she is.  Once we no longer enjoy our friend’s wit, these friendships tend to fade.

In a complete friendship, we “wish good things to [our] friends for the friends’ own sakebecause of themselves.”[5]  In a complete friendship, our friend feels the same way toward us, and we are also “both unconditionally good and beneficial to each other.”[6]  Our friend has character traits that we love because they are good, and this friendship itself is intrinsically good.

Was my early friendship with David at least partly based on usefulness and pleasure?  Well, yes, as I look back on it and ask myself this question for the first time.  David came from a wealthier neighborhood than I, and he had gone to the “in” junior high, whereas I had gone to the “out” junior high, with a relatively higher number of poorer and intellectually weaker students.  By becoming his friend, I moved up in social status and became accepted by David’s friends.

And certainly, his quick wit and good spirits gave me pleasure.

I was  aware of some good character traits (aka “virtues”) he possessed, such as his intellectual persistence, curiosity, and sociability.  It is sharing and valuing virtues that for Aristotle form the basis of a complete friendship.  But David had some bad character traits (aka “vices”) that made a complete friendship challenging, as at times he seemed to be a social climber, his attention and time quickly moving to someone else more important.

That’s ironic: I just realized that I criticized David for what I used him to do for myself, to climb up socially.

U.S Senate Candidate:  Walking the State

David on U.S. Senate campaign walk from coast to mountains
Photo by Terry Wyler Webb

In 1977 David made another grand decision, reminiscent of his ’68 trip to Czechoslovakia:  he decided to leave his job as a journalist to run for the U.S. Senate.  He walked the entire distance of the state — 1,654 miles — from Manteo to Murphy, carrying a change of clothes and his fiddle.  He got lots of good press coverage, promising voters that he would not “fiddle around” if they sent him to Washington. But that campaign was also when I first began to see the cracks.  He ran up large phone bills, came in 5th of 8 candidates in the Democratic primary, and destroyed his relationship with his fiancée.  In my eyes, he was never quite the same after that campaign.

He lived here and there.  He started spending more and more time playing with various bands.  For a while he lived in a huge apartment in an old building in the French Quarter of New Orleans and played in a band on Bourbon Street.

In the 1980’s David inherited a sizeable amount of money when his father died, offering the chance for financial stability.  But again he had a grand vision that he put into action.  He traveled a good bit of the Eastern U.S., visiting symphony orchestras where during a performance he would donate to that orchestra an expensive violin that he had purchased from John Sipe’s Presidential Series.   Sipes named those violins after various presidents.  David bought a few and then donated them to musicians or the orchestras in the cities where those presidents were born. For example, he went to Missouri to deliver the Harry Truman violin.[7] Often David performed, playing his violin with those orchestras.

Once he showed up at our house in Charlotte, his usual energetic story-telling self.  “I am travelling around visiting all the best minor league baseball parks,” he said. “Three nights ago I was in Toledo, and then the night after that in Nashville, and last night the Asheville Tourists.”  And then he would go into rich detail on the glories of each park and its history and the history of the city.

A Grand Life, Except…

It sounded a grand life, except for a couple of things.  He almost always was alone on these long road trips.   And it seemed more and more often the story would take a strange turn, “So right as I was coming into Charlotte I saw my odometer hit 400 miles, and that make me think that in another year it will be 400 years since the founding of the Old North State, and so I have an idea that could connect the Republicans and Democrats in that…” and suddenly I could no longer follow what he was saying.

At some point, maybe in the early 1990’s, David no longer came back to Charlotte and I lost touch with him.  (Or did I just not try hard enough to keep up with him?) I eventually heard from friends he was living homeless in the Triangle, back and forth between Raleigh and Chapel Hill and Durham.  He played his violin as beautifully as ever, but on the streets.  He never asked for money, but gratefully accepted it if offered by folks who were listening.  He rarely bathed and smelled bad, and of course his clothes were dirty.  That’s what it’s like if you’re homeless and living on the street.  Going to a shelter was not something David was willing to do.

Next time:  The rest of the story

[1] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 8, chapter 1, translated and notes by C.D.C. Reeve (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 2014).

[2] Book 8, Chapter 2

[3] Book 8, chapter 2.

[4] Book 8, chapter 3, W.D. Ross translation (The Internet Classics Archive, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html )

[5] Book 8, chapter 3, emphasis added.

[6] Book 8, chapter 3.

[7] Thanks to David’s niece, Meg Whalen, for this information, via email.

What Else Matters? Achievement

By Dr. Norris Frederick
Second in a series

Mr. Freddie Sherrill

After 28 years of attending and watching commencement exercises at Queens University of Charlotte, I’ve come to expect a certain routine of music, speeches, and the awarding of diplomas.  The event feels familiar and comforting to me — I know what’s going to happen.  But at last month’s graduation, as students’ names were being called and they marched across the stage in a flowing parade, something unexpected happened.  As “Freddie Sherrill” was called, a non-traditional age student walked toward the president to receive his undergraduate diploma.  Before he could get there, dozens, hundreds and then all 2,500 students, faculty, family and friends stood and cheered in honor of Mr. Sherrill and his achievements.

Achievement is one of the goods that make life worth living.  Pleasure is surely another:  that first cup of coffee in the morning speaks for itself, needs no argument.  In my most recent post I argued that reality is another such “good,” a type of thing that is desirable or has value for humans.

Many college students these days experience a great deal of anxiety about how well they will do in realizing their envisioned achievements — academic, social, and others.  Anxiety of course extends to most all of us, and one could well argue that an over-emphasis on achievement only adds to that anxiety.  But not to include achievement at all as part of a good life is surely to go too far.

Achievement is a matter of envisioning and then mastering some aspect(s) of reality.  I think about a state of being I want to occur, think about the intermediate steps, and then work hard to make that vision a reality.  Achievements involve struggle, because reality has a way of pushing up against us, resisting us.

Some achievements are rather trivial (I tied my shoes this morning), but even the matter of what’s trivial needs to be seen in context.  When my son Neville — who has Down Syndrome — was a child, he worked for two years to learn to tie his shoes.  After struggling every day to tie his shoes, with lots of moans and groans, one morning he walked out of his bedroom triumphant and beaming: “I did it! I did it!”  In his case, learning to tie his shoes was a significant achievement, not a trivial one.

Writing each of these posts is a bit of an achievement for me.  It’s not a huge one in the scheme of things, not like coming up with a new philosophical idea expressed in a thick, well-argued, and acclaimed book, for sure.  There is a similarity in Neville’s case and my own.  In order to bring about our external achievements we each had the internal achievement of mastering and thus further developing our self, at least enough to complete the achievement.  Neville had to overcome his frustration and perhaps sense of inadequacy to the task, while I…. well, it’s pretty much the same for me.

Great Achievements

Great achievements often are spread out over a long period of time, requiring a vision of a goal, continued efforts and struggles, mastering highly complex skills, and mastering of self:  leading your college or professional team to victory, becoming a world class dancer, making a scientific discovery and being awarded the Nobel Prize.

And yet even in the scope of great achievements context can lead us to see what we ordinarily regard a medium-sized achievement to be a great one.  Such is the case with Freddie Sherrill.  When he walked across the stage to receive his diploma with an undergraduate degree in human service studies, the audience gave a standing ovation indicating their admiration for his achievements.

What made his achievement great? As detailed in the stories and videos linked below, for many years Freddie was addicted to alcohol and other drugs, in and out of jail and prison, and at times homeless.  As if this were not enough, he could not read.  One night in 1988, he dropped his $2 bottle of wine.  “On his knees, he tried to lick alcohol from the shards of broken glass and began to weep…. he walked to a railroad track, pulled the .25-caliber pistol he always carried, put it to his head and pulled the trigger. The gun didn’t fire. He threw the pistol to the ground and it went off, pop-pop-pop.”[i]

From that point of hitting rock bottom, Freddie pleaded to God for help, received counseling, got in a recovery program, was given a work opportunity by a pastor, began speaking to AA and other groups, received help from a literacy council, earned his GED on the 6th try, earned an associates degree through 13 years of work, and at age 65 earned his bachelor’s degree at Queens through 7 years of work, including passing statistics on his third try.  (I am honored to have been his first professor at Queens, in an introduction to philosophy class.)

His amazing achievements were aided by many positive relationships and friendships.  At each stage, with the help of others, he envisioned another reality that would be the result of his achievements.  He gained knowledge of many types and in many fields.  Perhaps most impressive, all along the way of his efforts and struggles as he mastered reading and then various subjects, he mastered himself.

Mastering Our Self

Every achievement involves a mastery of oneself.  Mastering oneself is a challenge for all of us, not just for alcoholics.  Mastering ourselves, as we all know, is fraught with our own anxiety, with challenges to our vision of what we will become, and sometimes with failure.

Freddie Sherill’s example points a way for dealing with anxiety and the possibility of failure.  Surround yourself with support and a few good friends.  Work hard and have some success with the smaller achievements, like learning to read a few words, and realize the joy you feel at having accomplished that.  Gain some confidence with each achievement, so that the prospect of joy begins to outweigh the anxiety.  Realize that while there are some achievements that are significant and even amazing regardless of circumstance, many and probably most achievements – like those of Neville and Mr. Sherrill — get their significance from context and the specific life of the person involved.  These latter achievements are still real achievements which are worthy of celebration.

Each of us is, after all, our self, and a self is a very difficult thing to change.  When we do change some significant aspect of our self, that’s an achievement worth living for.


A story about Freddie Sherrill and a video of a speech by him:  http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article210207924.html .

NBC Today show interview with Freddie Sherrill and pastor Steve Eason: https://www.today.com/video/once-a-homeless-drug-addict-he-s-now-a-college-graduate-1239179843659?v=b

[i] Bruce Henderson, Charlotte Observer online, May 3, 2018.  http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article210207924.html

What Else Matters? Reality.

By Dr. Norris Frederick
First in a series

Thanks to those of you who responded to my most recent post about an assignment from my “Philosophy for Life” course, based on Nozick’s thought-experiment, “The Experience Machine.”  The ultimate virtual reality device, this machine can give you any experience you desire.  Any. I asked whether you would “plug into this machine for life, pre-programming your life’s desires.”  If not, why not: “What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?”[1]

For those of us who are getting a bit older (which I suppose would include everyone, wouldn’t it? …but you know what I mean), Dr, Nancy Gaillard wrote, “I think about this quite a bit as I realize there are so many things I can no longer do or places I can no longer go.” Instead of just occasionally having dream-fragments about running fast, I could program into the machine many long runs and even road races where I do well and have a great time, followed by delicious thirst-quenching beers being absorbed into my slim body (okay, I really went overboard, even in my imagination, with that last adjective).

But then Nancy went on to write, “I suppose that this kind of machine would be good but nothing compares to the actual adventures, both good and challenging, that give us perspective.”  There are several “what else matters to us” in her thought:  actuality, adventures, challenges, and perspective.  We might call each of these things a “good,” a type of thing that is desirable or has value for humans.

Let’s consider the first in the list, which I’ll call reality.  Reality matters to us, even though it is not always pleasant.  The first time I did this thought experiment with a class, one guy said, “Yes, I would plug in.”  When asked why, the student did not give a list of pleasures (such as endless ice cream sundaes, a date with the sexiest singer, etc.), but said “I can be with my friends whenever I want for as long as I want.”

“Aww, that’s sweet,” someone said.   Then someone questioned whether “for as long as I want” is true friendship.  Finally another student hit the nail on the head:  “You aren’t really with your friend, you’re just experiencing what appears to be your friend, but it’s not your friend.  It’s all you, it’s all in your head.”  “Ohhhh,” the first student got it.

Why This Thought Experiment?

A thought experiment is an imaginative exercise that gives us an opportunity to test our concepts and their limits, how they connect with other concepts, and which concepts are incompatible.  This particular thought experiment, for almost everyone, shows the limits of pleasure.  Pleasure is a fine thing indeed, but it’s not the only thing, and there are limits to the value of pleasure.  We value reality, too, even though we can’t always control it.  This lack of control makes possible adventures (if it’s all controlled, as in Disney World, it’s not really an adventure) and challenges, which we also value.  Our dealing with and reflecting about reality over time makes possible perspective.

I find this thought-experiment not only intriguing, but also vital as it leads us to ponder the values and limits of pleasurable experiences.  It’s easy for my students and the rest of us to recognize how those addicted to drugs value the drug pleasure and/or absence of pain over any other good:  relationships, family, health, and even food.  And for at least part of the time, they use the drugs successfully to avoid reality.  Poor them, we say.

It’s harder to recognize that for many of us non-drug addicts in the developed world, and certainly in the United States, there are ways in which we actual do inhabit the experience/pleasure machine a great deal of the time.  Most of us have “smart” cell phones, which remain a constant focus throughout the day.  To be sure, one of the reasons many people like the phones is that they offer extensions of real friendship, through voice, text, and email.  But those phones also provide endless distractions from our present reality:  cat videos, likes on Facebook, YouTube, music, Netflix, that ad that just popped up for shoes…. Then add time on the computer with all the preceding, and we actually are spending a good deal of time just seeking pleasurable experiences, whatever rocks your boat.

One measure of a person’s true values can be found in their expenditures.  How much do you or I spend a month on cell phones, cell phone service, and cable service for television and internet?

Again, in itself pleasure is a good, and as humans we are clearly wired to, …well…, like pleasure.  But it’s a matter of balance.  Aristotle is right: “What we need, in order to live well, is a proper appreciation of the way in which such goods as friendship, pleasure, virtue, honor and wealth fit together as a whole.”[2]

To be continued.


[1] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. 42 – 43 (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 2013, original paperback edition published in 1974).

[2] Richard Kraut, “Aristotle’s Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),  https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/  and forthcoming URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/aristotle-ethics/>.

Photo credit:  https://www.pinterest.com/pin/512847476286904880/


The Experience Machine

By Dr. Norris Frederick

This semester I’m teaching my course “Philosophy for Life:  What do Great Philosophers and Current Science Have to Say about True Happiness and a Good Life?” [i] The course raises and examines questions and conflicting views about happiness, whether some views are closer to “true” happiness, and whether happiness is the same as a good life.   One assignment asks students to consider and answer two questions about a thought-experiment created by Robert Nozick,[ii] “The Experience Machine.”  Today I want to give you, dear reader, an opportunity to think about and perhaps answer those questions yourself.  Here is the thought experiment.

“Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book.   All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s desires? …. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?”

So think about, perhaps talk about with others, those two questions:  “Would you plug in [for life]? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?”  Then if you wish you can write some of your thoughts either on my website (click here) or on my Facebook or Instagram pages.

Next month I’ll reflect on the thought-experiment and your responses.


[i]  The course is part of a learning community called “The Pursuit of Happiness,” which also includes a class in sociology and a class in rhetoric & argument. I am grateful to my colleagues Jay Wills, Sarah Creech, Tracey Perez, and Jenn Goddu for the opportunity to work with them in this learning community.

[ii]  Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. 42 – 43 (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 2013, original paperback edition published in 1974).

Photo credit:  Norris Frederick

The New Year: The Journey’s All the Time

By Dr. Norris Frederick

I’ve been traveling down interstates 77 and 81 for about 3 hours, and the roar of trucks going 75 mph is getting to me.  I’m on the way to the Virginia mountains to meet my friend Ike Casey for our annual fall hike.  As I take a rest stop break near Roanoke, I look at the map and see what looks like good roads that will get me off the interstate NOW.  I can’t wait to start this journey through the back roads.

I’m exhilarated as I leave I-81 and get on route 311, a nice two-lane with newly painted white stripes dividing the road.  The quiet, the clear view of nearby grass and trees in sight as I travel at 45 mph instead of 70 on the barren interstate.  How wonderful it is to take the back roads!  I sigh with relaxation and happiness.

Then things begin to change.  After a short while my route takes a right, and I notice that there is no center line at all.  The road takes sharp turns first to the left, then back again to the right.  I pass through the small town of New Castle, which amazingly has a Subway, and I consider stopping.  But I’m already behind schedule to meet Ike, so I keep on driving, munching on trail mix. As I leave the town, I get behind a car creeping along, and I’m very frustrated.

Twenty minutes later I’m driving through a forest. It’s suddenly become rather dark, and the GPS signal has disappeared.  There’s a “Road Narrows” sign, and after the road indeed does narrow there is a “Narrow Bridge” sign.  After a while comes another tiny bridge, this time without any warning sign.  Then the road narrows again until I think that surely I am driving in someone’s driveway, just big enough for one car.

Why did I come on this stupid journey?  Impulsiveness?  A lack of persistence, when my destination was clear on well-marked roads?


In a period of about 90 minutes, the frame with which I was understanding and feeling the drive changed dramatically.  What I originally framed as an exciting and meaningful “journey” was unconsciously primed by my perceptions of the growing dark and the narrowing, unmarked, and unsigned road to an experience of being endangered or lost.  I felt a bit like cattle being herded into a dead-end canyon.  I wanted OUT OF THERE!

The idea that my life, my year, or my day is “a journey” is a powerful metaphor.  “Journey” and “journal” come from the same Old French and Latin roots for “day,” the former meaning a day’s travel or work, the latter meaning a daily record.  Unlike “trip,” “journey” implies a travel of considerable distance[i], and by implication, I think, “journey” also implies meaningful travel, just as a journal is an effort to record meaning in one’s life.

Every physical journey has an inward side, the awareness and state of consciousness of the person on the journey.  Too often we are like me on the back roads of the Virginia mountain.  We experience boredom, then excitement as the journey commences, followed soon by fear and worry – of being lost or late, or not achieving goals, or some possible future event.  As it turned out, I wasn’t lost on that journey on the back roads.  Despite my needless worry, my journey was as worthwhile as my destination.

We wait for the new year and for some transforming event for the journey to begin.  We don’t see what is right in front of us, and so we miss our lives.  As Aileen and Elkin Thomas sing so beautifully inThe Journey,” the journey’s all the time.

“Of all the time and space
our lives have occupied,

Right now is where we’ve come to be,
The journey’s not what’s going to be,
The journey’s all the time,
The journey’s all the time.”


Every day and every hour offers us possibilities.  If we are aware of what is unconsciously priming our experience, we have a better chance of consciously framing that experience in a way that is both more workable and meaningful.  We have to train ourselves to do that, but awareness is the first step.

May your journey in 2018 be a meaningful one.

[i] Webster’s New World Dictionary, College Edition (The World Publishing Company, 1960).


Philosophy and Hope, in a Jar

by Dr. Norris Frederick


Recently I was browsing the internet, looking at philosophy websites.  I came across one with a prime domain name:  philosophy.com.  I wondered what philosophers and topics were covered there.  Plato?  Sartre?  Perhaps a discussion of contemporary ethics?  So I clicked on the url, and was quite surprised to find that philosophy.com is a site for…perhaps you guessed it or knew…a line of products for beautiful skin.

I found myself thinking about philosophy.com for several days, wondering why it stayed on my mind.  And then it hit me that Soren Kierkegaard had given the diagnosis for this symptom long ago:

“Not just in commerce but in the world of ideas too our age is putting on a veritable clearance sale.  Everything can be had so dirt cheap that one begins to wonder whether in the end anyone will want to make a bid.[1]

Kierkegaard wrote these words to open his book Fear and Trembling, first published in 1843, as an indictment of his native Copenhagen and Denmark.  His words and thoughts still ring true in American society today, where many of us not only want fast and easy food, but fast and easy ideas and beliefs.

Selling ideas for cheap

In every known epoch and culture the appeal of easy ideas has been powerful.  Why bother to struggle and think when the persuasive words of others can think for us?  In 399 B.C., at his trial on the charges of worshipping false gods and corrupting the youth, Socrates has to open his defense to his fellow citizens and jurors by saying of his accusers that “I was almost carried away in spite of myself, so persuasively did they speak.  And yet, hardly anything of what they said is true.” [2]  It takes a Socrates or a Kierkegaard to sting us into the realization that often our ideas are not our own and that we have bought for cheap vital ideas that can be earned for oneself only through long struggle.

Kierkegaard’s age was one in which commerce — the buying and selling of goods — was coming to dominate the culture.  In his eyes, society mostly consists of sleepwalkers following the vision of the collective society; those who realize this become insomniacs.

Our own age has surpassed Kierkegaard’s in selling ideas for cheap through the use of the image, brought to us through magazines, television, and now the internet.  Thanks to cell phones, images and persuasion can now reach us most anywhere and anytime.

In the images above and below, “philosophy” does not refer to thinking critically or to a coherent worldview, but to a line of skin care.  You can now buy philosophy from a bottle or a jar.  One can move out of despair and toward a good life by purchasing “renewed hope in a jar” for as little as $16!  The jar below tells us “philosophy:  live with optimism, renew with hope.”  Wow, I feel better already! (Let’s see now, the $16 jar buys 0.5 oz., but for $47 I can get 2.0 oz., oh yeah, that is the smarter buy!)


Philosophy.com also offers to help us easily achieve with purchases of the products “purity made simple” and “amazing grace” what some people would consider religious and spiritual blessings.

The point is not that the advertisers and philosophy® Official Site‎ are evil, and it’s certainly not that there is anything wrong with wanting to look good and feel good.    The point is that this selling of philosophy® is just one visible image of what Kierkegaard described – the selling of ideas so cheap that perhaps there may not be any buyers.  The astonishing thing is how difficult it is to even have the thought that there is something a little odd about buying philosophy®, purity, and grace. (Wait!  Am I now violating trademark by even using the word “philosophy®”?  Should I be referencing those who own the word every time I mention it in class?)

Insomnia is not always a bad thing

Kierkegaard argues in Fear and Trembling that no one today can truly understand the gut-wrenching, fierce and raging struggle from which Abraham’s faith was forged in responding to God’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Kierkegaard writes that listeners in those comfortable pews are mentally asleep, and perhaps too the preachers.  And today, as we have learned, one can literally buy “purity made simple” and “amazing grace.”

Kierkegaard would tell us we need to wake up.  “I’m just fine!” we reply.  Kierkegaard, that physician of the soul, writes that “…the specific character of despair is precisely this:  it is unaware of being despair.”[3]  When we buy products such as “renewed hope,” we do not know that in the world of ideas one cannot get genuine renewed hope without doing the work, and the first step of the work is realizing that we may well be in despair, the complete absence of hope.  That despair is masked and soothed by a culture that tells us through images that if we just buy more, just buy the right type of product, earn or inherit the money to get the right house and send our kids to the right schools, all will be well.

Sometimes being disturbed by one’s thoughts is a good thing.  It’s really okay to have insomnia once in a while.  The hope that Kierkegaard offers is that in the world of ideas – unlike the world of market exchange where some inherit their wealth – in the world of ideas “only one who works get bread, and only one who knows anguish finds rest.”[4] Getting through the anguish and insomnia to another resting place is hard work, but it is a truer and better place to rest.



(First posted September 26,  2016)


[1] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, translated by Alastair Hannay (New York:  Penguin Books, 1985), p. 49.

[2] Plato, The Apology, in The Trial and Death of Socrates  translated by G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 1975), p. 22.

[3] Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death.

[4] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, p. 57.

Healthy-Mindedness and the Sick Soul

By Dr. Norris Frederick
Third and final in a series on death

The recent solar eclipse was almost total here in Charlotte, and a large number of people gathered on the Queens University campus to watch the event.  For the folks around me and those shown in videos from around the country, the atmosphere was of celebration or deep awe at this rare celestial event.  At our campus there were enough eclipse sun-glasses to share so that everyone could gaze as the moon came closer and closer to blocking the sun.   For weeks, there had been dire warnings about the dangers of looking directly at the sun.  I wonder:  should there be similar warnings about staring at death, as it eclipses our lives?  Is our joy destroyed by that evil shadow creeping over our vitality?

We always need lenses through which to look at the deepest philosophical questions, and I find the philosopher and psychologist William James to be of great help.  In The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902), his method is to collect and categorize human responses to the question of “What is the character of this universe in which we live?”[1]  After examining these responses as shown in “feelings, acts and experiences,”[2] he offers philosophical hypotheses and conclusions to answer two key philosophical questions, what is true and what is best.

The healthy-minded temperament and strategy

James describes two main types of temperament toward viewing evil and death.  The first he calls the “healthy-minded”:  “In many persons, happiness is congenital….when unhappiness is offered to them” they “positively refuse to feel it [unhappiness], as if it were something mean and wrong.”[3]  Evil has no reality.  Their soul is “sky-blue” and their “affinities are rather with flowers and birds…than with dark human passions… [and they] can think no ill of man or God.”[4]

People with the totally healthy-minded temperament manage not to see the reality of death at all.  When James published The Varieties in 1902, there was in America (as there is now) a great emphasis on happiness or “healthy-mindedness.” Today those who are not naturally as optimistic can voluntarily adopt strategies to become happier through therapy, medication, or meditation.  Healthy-mindedness can be not only a temperament, but a strategy.

In my most recent post on death, “Out of Sight, or Front and Center?” I wrote of our study tour visiting the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, where the bones of thousands of past monks are on display.  The healthy-minded in our group would have preferred to never have entered in the first place (“Why go to such a gloomy place on such a beautiful day, and in romantic Italy, for God’s sake!?”).  And many of us left after viewing the Crypt moving as quickly as possible to find a cappuccino or a beer, trying to restore healthy-mindedness, happiness. And why not?  Don’t we want to be happy?  Isn’t happiness a good thing?  And if the young naturally cannot conceive of the reality of their death, why should we focus on it, either?

The temperament of the sick soul 

James describes a second temperament which he names the “sick soul.”  For people with this temperament “the evil aspects of our life are of the very essence…the world’s meaning most comes to us when we lay them most to heart”[5]  For these people, it’s as if they are born to a life where from every pleasure, “something bitter rises up:…a touch of nausea…a whiff of melancholy,” which have “a feeling of coming from a deeper region.” [6]

If you’ve ever had a time when evil and sadness overwhelmed you for extended periods of time, you know how inadequate this description is to what you felt or feel.  We know now that at least part of this temperament (as well as the temperament of the healthy-minded) is genetic.  Whether from genetic or other reasons, the sick soul can overcome us.  In The Varieties, James gives a vivid description of someone overwhelmed by depression.

Whilst in this state of philosophic pessimism and general depression of spirits about my prospects, I went one evening into a dressing-room in the twilight to procure some article that was there; when suddenly there fell upon me without any warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence.  Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or rather shelves against the wall, with his knees drawn up against his chin….This image and my   fear entered into a species of combination with each other.  That shape am I, I felt, potentially.  Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him.  There was such a horror of him… that it was as if something hitherto solid within my breast gave way entirely, and I became a mass of quivering fear. After this the universe was changed for me altogether. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and that I have never felt since.  It was like a revelation; and although the immediate feelings passed away, the experience has made me sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others ever since. It gradually faded, but for months I was unable to go out into the dark alone.[7]

James later admitted the sufferer was himself, in a period of depression early on his life.  Clearly, the category of the unhealthy-minded was no mere philosophical abstraction for James; he had experienced it with the depth of his being.

What strikes many people immediately upon viewing the Capuchin crypt and all those human bones is a feeling of disgust, easily seen in the faces of the viewers. The word several people in our group used is that it’s just “morbid.”  If that viewing and that sense of morbidity, darkness and gloom dominated a person for long periods of time, we might well judge that to be unhealthy.To the sick soul it is not the pleasure of the beer and human company that is the most real, it is the feeling of death to come.

Which is true and best: the healthy-minded or the sick soul? 

Like so many questions of this sort, the question of whether the healthy-minded or the sick soul presents a true view of reality and is the best way to live is a false dilemma.  There are other possible answers.  There are both different levels and combinations of these two temperaments that form a philosophy for living.

There is something to be said from within the morbid-minded view, especially when it is taken not from the extreme of debilitating depression but from its more philosophical form.    James writes that the view of the sick soul is “based on the persuasion that the evil aspects of our life are of its very essence, and that the world’s meaning most comes home to us when we lay them most to heart.”[8]

I think that is why so many of the great works of literature deal with death and suffering.  That why Tolstoy grabs us so strongly with the opening sentence of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  It’s the truth and reality of the unhappiness that reels us in.  It’s why Walker Percy’s The Second Coming has stuck so many as a powerful truth, as the central character deals with the sadness and emptiness he feels and sees in his past, his self, and the society around him.

James points out that there are different levels of both healthy-mindedness and morbid-mindedness people have some mixture of the two temperaments.  He stated in his 1895-96 lectures on abnormal psychology that “A life healthy on the whole must have some morbid elements.”[9]  Finally, he argues that the morbid-minded philosophical position is superior in some ways to the healthy-minded, as the former ranges over a “wider scale of experience” and because “the evil facts which [healthy-mindedness] refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality.”[10]

Refusing to see and experience the reality of death and suffering narrows and constricts our experiences, while acknowledging and feeling their reality paradoxically enriches our lives.  Acknowledging and feeling the reality of death, suffering, and evil turns out to be healthier than trying to deny it.

A truly healthy philosophy for living has the proper relationship between the healthy-minded and the sick soul.  An Epicurean life of simple pleasures and serenity is not enough, for an adequate philosophy will value the struggle.

A healthy worldview calls both for acknowledging and for an overcoming of death in some way, whether by a life demonstrating courage and human excellence, and/or by a life continued – in some way — beyond this one, through an afterlife, reincarnation, or the influences we leave in the world.  We are elevated by the lives of good, honest, courageous, and hopeful people, and they inspire us to do likewise.

[1] James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, (Penguin Classics, 1982), 35.
[2] James, The Varieties, 31.
[3] James, The Varieties, 75.
[4] James, The Varieties, 8o.
[5] James, The Varieties, 131.
[6] James, The Varieties, 136.
[7] James, The Varieties, 160 – 161.
[8] James, The Varieties. 131.
[9] James, “Notes for the Lowell Institute Lectures on Exceptional Mental States,” Manuscript Lectures, (Harvard University Press), 63.
[10] James, The Varieties, 163.

Photo Credit:  NASA


Death: Out of Sight, or Front and Center?

By Dr. Norris Frederick
Second in a series

My thanks to you for the many thoughtful responses, both on my website and on Facebook, about my first post on death.  A couple of you wrote that you don’t fear death, thus challenging my idea of “that feeling of existential terror that we all feel at some points of our lives.”  Everyone, however, offered some explanation of the role of death in our lives.

Urban living and modern science and medicine have changed our experience of death.   In earlier times, death occurred in the home and often rather quickly.  People grew old, perhaps got pneumonia (“the old person’s friend”) and died in the home.  Even young children observed the death of their elders.  Today for many of us the death of those we know has become a bit more “out of sight, out of mind.”

Death Front and Center

Seventeen years ago I was a faculty leader on a Queens University of Charlotte student study tour of Italy.  We started the tour on the beautiful Amalfi coast, where our hotel overlooked the sparking Tyrrhenian Sea.  We took a boat to Capri, rode a taxi to the top of the island, where we sat under a restaurant umbrella enjoying the world’s best cappuccino.  It was morning, we and the world were young, full of possibilities, relaxed and enjoying life in the best Epicurean fashion.

The next day we rode the bus to Rome, which was beautiful in its own way, but also busy, noisy and crowded.  We had to be alert when crossing the street to avoid being hit by cars.  The students adapted, though, and quickly found the best clubs and bars, staying out just as late as possible.

One morning our itinerary showed we were to visit Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini (Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins).  The students assumed it was yet another church where we would see and “appreciate” sculpture.  Neither they nor we faculty were fully prepared for the key feature of the church, The Capuchin Crypt.  We faculty walked to the entrance of the Crypt, paid the entrance fees for us all, and stood aside to let the students go in first.  Their initial responses of “Oh my god!” appeared the most reverent of any church we had entered — except their “Oh my god!” exclamations were closer to disgust than to awe.  Before us in the first of six chapels/crypts were displays of bones arranged to form a theme.    We were overwhelmed both by the gargantuan number of bones as well as by the arrangements where bones had been clothed to resembled a body.

In all, there are the bones of about 4,000 skeletons.  The students who had been out late at the bar may have been thinking about how good it would be to take a nap, but this tableau no doubt left them wide awake.

For the professors who hold the knowledge in their brains in such high esteem, there was also this in The Crypt of the Skulls.

We no longer felt young and relaxed, with the world at our fingertips.

Bringing It Home

When the Capuchins, an order of the Franciscans, moved to this location in 1631, the Vatican ordered that they take with them the remains of their deceased brothers The Capuchins went one step further than “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” They apparently decided “when the Pope gives you bones, make art.”

Just as we whispered to ourselves little jokes and smiles as we went through the Crypt twenty years ago, I find myself even now trying to make light of the all-too-real bones.  The whole crypt does seem macabre.  Why would anyone construct such a crypt?  In fact, why would anyone visit there?

The answer, and the very most chilling thing we saw, was a small plaque among the bones, which read

“What you are now, we once were;
What we are now, you shall be.”

Oh. My. God.  They were once like us, young, happy, excited.  And we shall one day be as them:  mere bones.

We could not wait to get out of there.  After exiting we dispersed quickly to find a late cappuccino or an early lunch or even better, a beer.  Whew….  We smiled, we even laughed, but for a while we could not shake off the image of our own deaths.

Was it worth the shock?

The Capuchin friars clearly want to remind us of the temporary nature of our life here on earth, in hope that we will be reminded of the eternal life to come after this one.  We need to be oriented toward the world to come, and to rid ourselves of the vanity of putting too much emphasis on this life.  We aren’t all that.

The Epicureans also recognize that life is fleeting, but they offer no hope for a life after this one.  Instead, they urge us to live this life as fully as possible.  As the poet Horace writes,

“While we are talking, jealous time has fled. 
So seize the day, and do not trust the morrow!” [1] 

Carpe diem.

The Capuchins and the Epicureans hold radically opposite beliefs about an afterlife.  However, they share the belief that it is important that we face the reality:  we will die.  Facing reality is a good thing.  Our own culture has as much as possible removed death from the home, placing it in sanitized hospitals and funeral homes, lessening its reality.  People in the developed world spend a great deal of time in the virtual reality of the internet.  National politics in the U.S. are often divorced from reality.

So the Capuchins have done a good thing in helping us to face reality.  It’s up to us now as to what we do with that knowledge.  Thinking of all those bones and the reality of death, we could do a lot worse than to follow Horace’s advice:

“Persuade yourself that each new day that dawns will be your last.  Then you will receive each unexpected hour with gratitude.”[2]

To be continued


[1] Horace, Odes, I, 11, 7, in Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy, 126.

[2] Horace, Epistles, I, 4, 13, in Hadot, 126.

Picture credits:  Norris Frederick; http://tripfreakz.com/offthebeatenpath/the-capuchin-crypt-in-rome-italy ; and http://www.romeing.it/museum-and-crypt-of-the-capuchin-friars-rome/ .

Death: Many Questions

By Dr. Norris Frederick

There’s been way too much death in my world in the last year:  four nearby neighbors, three cousins, two close high school friends, and one Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book that had an enormous influence on me.  These deaths have affected me in ways I don’t yet fully understand.  They may have something to do with the writer’s block that has locked my mind and typing fingers.

Objectively, ten deaths is nothing in this world.  Eighteen people died just yesterday in the terrorist attack in London, just as they were going about their normal day, going to work, shopping.  And that pales beside the years-long carnage in Syria.  When I hear about those deaths, I suffer briefly with them, but typically go on to the next thing and their deaths fade from my being until some event brings it back.  But for most all of us, when our friends and family die, we feel the loss in a deep, existential sense that rocks our world.

I talk every week with a very good friend who lives near D.C.  He’s listened sympathetically to me talk about the deaths of my friends, but it wasn’t until recently when he had a close friend die that he really felt what I was experiencing.  Words failed us both as we tried to explain, but now we share the experience.

Aristotle writes that one of the essential goods of a person’s life is friendship.  Who would want to live a life without friends?  We realize that by paying attention to the feeling when a friend moves away and most vividly when a friend dies.

One conception of philosophy is that it deals with far-out, abstract ideas that have no connection with reality.  Guys and gals sit around, drinking or perhaps smoking dope, saying, “Hey, man, what if ….?”  But in fact the best philosophy begins with wonder or mysteries or problems or deep experiences, and tries to think about those problems and experiences in ways that connect back fruitfully to our lives, so that we both understand better and live better.

The full experience of death raises so many questions:  Do we just live and die, fini, that’s all, folks? Or does something transcend?   Does some part of us survive in another world, or perhaps are we re-born into this world?  Does death take away the meaning of life?  Is death the ultimate proof that “life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing?”

There are some strange asymmetries in the way we think about death.   Adults have no trouble conceiving of a time before we are born (after all I know I was not alive during the Civil War), but it’s difficult for us to conceive of a time after we are dead – how can the world go on without me?

Ancient Greek philosophies offer ways for us to distance ourselves and think rationally about death in order to live a better life now.  The Epicureans, who believe that everything is composed of atoms, say that when I die the atoms that are “me” disperse, so “I” no longer am.  Thus, “When I am, death is not; when death is I am not.”  The key is to enjoy life while we are alive, and to realize that we should not fear death, for when it occurs we will have no pain.  The Stoics argue that when we die, we return to the Logos, the eternal ongoing impersonal, rational process of the world.  “Remember that you are an actor in a play, which is as the playwright wants it to be:  short or long.  What is yours is to play the assigned part well.”

The reasoning of the Epicureans and Stoics each make sense, at least to a certain extent.  They capture what I often think during the daytime.  They don’t capture what I feel and think when I wake up in the middle of the night.  For that I need to turn to the 20th-century existentialist Miguel de Unamuno who writes in The Tragic Sense of Life, in an attempt to capture the way we really feel about death, despite listening to good reasons:

I do not want to die – no; I neither want to die nor do I want to want to die; I want to live for ever and ever and ever.  I want this “I” to live – this poor “I” that I am and that I feel myself to be here and now, and therefore the problem of the duration of my soul, of my own soul, tortures me.

That’s it.  Unamuno nailed it that feeling of existential terror that we all feel at some points of our lives.   I do grieve, truly grieve for the deaths of those I know, and for their families and friends.  But I also grieve for me.  I want to live for ever and ever and ever.  That wild, deep feeling he describes is perhaps more “me” than reason.

So, you ask, what good is there for my life in recognizing this existential terror?  There are three goods that come to mind.  First, you now have admitted to consciousness knowledge you did not have before. Second, you move from being alone to being companioned; we are all in the same boat regarding death. Finally, realizing that there are no easy answers to the questions of death, you can do the best thing someone can do for a bereaved friend:  just sit with them, just be with them. Just sit with yourself, just observe, just be,

To be continued

Photo credit:  Norris Frederick


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