Category Archives: beauty

Friendship and David McKnight: Homeless, Musician, Journalist, Statesman, Friend

By Dr. Norris Frederick
Third and Final Part (part one is here and part two here)

 In poverty, too, as in all other misfortunes, people think friends to be their only refuge….
But friendship is not only necessary but also noble;
for we praise those who love their friends,
and it is thought to be a fine thing to have many friends;
and again we think it is the same people that are good people and are friends.”
— Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics[1]

 

David McKnight at the Durham Farmer’s Market, Sept. 2014.
Photo by Bill Pope

David encountered many challenges in the years between being voted Most Likely to Succeed in high school and ending up living on the streets in Durham.  All along the way, however, were friends who both were drawn to David because of his gifts and who he was, and who also nurtured those gifts and David.  As a result, sometimes, together they brought about amazing events.

A heads-up:  this is a long post, but it all seemed essential to the final installment on friendship and David.  Read it as you wish.  I suggest a glass of your favorite beverage and finding a little time.  Or just listen to the music, watch the videos, look at the pictures and browse around.

“In Poverty, Too, As In All Other Misfortunes, People Think Friends To Be Their Only Refuge”

Between 2009 and 2016, several things happened that substantially improved David’s life.  In 2009, he began playing his violin each Saturday at the Durham Farmer’s Market. The $100 he could make in tips became his main source of income[2] and provided him more predictability about his resources after two decades of playing on the street.  And the exposure to people who otherwise might never have heard or seen him brought joy to many, as witnessed by the mother and child with David above.

Of course, even with a little more money, David was still living on the streets.  Friend Bill Pope captures David’s astounding routine for all those years:  “David was blessed with a loving guardian angel.  He never experienced any harm.  He avoided homeless shelters. Police watched out for him. Bartenders often slipped him food and drinks. He was amazingly resourceful and resilient.  Satisfaction, a sports bar and restaurant, became his living room; Kinkos served as his late-night office, and the city buses, his bedroom.  He drank beer, ate dinner, and socialized until closing. He would then go to Kinkos and pay several dollars for the use of a computer (this was before he had access to Duke Library and the internet). For several hours he wrote editorials, made copies, and mailed them the next day to newspapers. Early the next morning he would buy several different newspapers and carried them in large paper bags.  He memorized all the bus routes.  Starting around 5 a.m. he would hop on the first bus and pay $2.00 for a day pass and immediately fall asleep sitting up.  A good ride would last 90 minutes. In between bus rides, he would play his violin or guitar on 9th Street in Durham, Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, and Hillsborough Street in Raleigh.”

Even given David’s resourcefulness and resiliency, he could not have made it all those years on the streets without friends.  As Aristotle writes, “In poverty, too, as in all other misfortunes, people think friends to be their only refuge.”[i]

David was fortunate to have so many friends as his refuge.  When the overnight temperature would get below freezing, Bill Yaeger would get into his car and ride around looking for David to offer him a room for the night.  Sometimes he found David, other times he did not.  One day when there was an unexpected snowstorm, Bill found David on Main Street in front of Satisfaction, walking in a circle.  He was disoriented but got into the car, and Bill drove home to house David for the night.  Friend and former band member Pattie LeSueur remembers, “”Driving down Ninth Street, I would always just keep my eyes peeled for him, and a lot of times I would see him at the bus station. I’d stop and give him a ride. If you needed to find David, you’d find him down there. But through the years, we would talk about him and express a lot of worry about what was going on with him. We’d try to sit down and talk to him, but we just weren’t sure how to help him.”

Bill Pope writes about David’s many homeless years:
“There were short term stays with friends, usually a night or two a week, a year with an acquaintance in Charlottesville, a month or so here and there with musicians.  He once spent the winter on the office floor at an old tobacco warehouse. For many years, he slept on a mattress in my living room, usually once a week, sometimes longer in the winter.  He rarely asked to stay with me.  I learned to read between the lines.  In the winter, he might say something like ‘I hear it’s going to be 17 degrees tonight.’   One memorable night in January 2000, a monster snowstorm bore down.  I jumped in my car searching frantically for him as the first flakes covered the windshield.  I spotted David calmly sitting on a wall near downtown. That night we feasted on spaghetti and salad and gulped down a half bottle of red wine.  He basked in a hot shower, and within minutes was snoring. The next morning we stared at a record 20 inches of snow.  He stayed a week.”

Another friend, Bill Erwin, writes, “There was a time when several of us were discussing making a monthly contribution to pay apartment rent for David.  My wife, Heidrun, and I had also discussed building a little house for him in our back yard. Neither of those ideas went very far, however. David was opposed to anything that sounded like ‘charity.’”

He did live with us for three months or so, sleeping on the couch, and was an amenable housemate for Heidrun, me and our two sons.”

And then, about 2013, a few years after David began playing at the Farmer’s Market,  something remarkable happened.  David accepted a long-standing invitation to share with a young man a two-bedroom side of a duplex only a couple of blocks from 9th Street and near the bus lines. David had held off accepting that invitation for a long while, but he turned 65 that year, and the results of aging, the lack of sleep, and his weight were taking a toll on him.  The duplex was a god-send.  It eliminated living on the street and thus ended David’s mind-boggling 20-year-long daily routine.

David in front of his duplex, Oct. 31, 2015
Photo by Bill  Pope

“Friendship is not only necessary, it is also noble”

In 2014, yet another good thing happened, thanks to friends who helped David to apply and qualify for Social Security benefits.

Even before David could consider applying, he had to have an acceptable ID, and for this he received help from his friend and niece Lorrin Freeman, who lived in nearby Wake County. She writes,
“The effort to get David his social security was a multi-phase process.   It required him getting an ID. I will tell you that getting an ID for someone who has no ID is nearly impossible.  David had been ‘off the grid’ for years.   We originally went to get a passport but it turns out you can’t get a passport without an ID.   I took a second afternoon from work to take him to DMV.   As we got closer to the office he became more and more nervous.   I was determined we were going to follow through.   As we waited in line, I tried to distract him with conversation, but his anxiety clearly was rising.   When it was our turn the DMV agent almost turned us down because we were lacking sufficient identifying documents.   It was at that moment I believe she saw the despair on my face and in a last-ditch effort asked me if he had ever had a driver’s license.   It had been more than twenty-five years I told her, but yes, he had had one.  She then pulled it up on their computer – looked at the picture which I am certain looked virtually nothing like David and at me and agreed it was certainly him.   I have always been so grateful for her compassion and assistance.   I feel certain that if we had failed that day, David, who had had to be consistently cajoled to receive some help, would have given up and never agreed to go again.”

Another friend was Sybil Huskey, David’s co-recipient of “Most Likely to Succeed” at Garinger High School in Charlotte, as well as editor of the school newspaper for which David wrote a sports column. Sybil, a dance professor, spent the entire summer of 2014 in Durham at the NC Idea Labs, in her role as a co-founder of a start-up software company, Video Collaboratory.  During that summer Sybil had numerous prolonged discussions with David about applying for Social Security benefits.  David was excited about the prospect, as he felt he had earned these benefits rather than their being charity, but he still did not apply.  Sybil writes, “I knew that the ‘Bills’ had tried in vain to facilitate David’s S.S., but David just said he would take care of it online. NOT. So knowing this, I kept nudging him during my Durham summer and finally established a breakfast date at Elmo’s diner followed by a visit to the S.S. Office. When David saw all the people, he broke into a sweat and reiterated his intent of enrolling online. I laughed and told him we would just take a number and then have lots of time to visit. Miraculously, he agreed. When his number was called, he insisted on going solo to the window. He was exuberant when he found that he would be receiving more money than he had anticipated so it was a happy day. And he got enrolled in Medicare Part A.”

Later that summer Sybil helped David fill out an application for Medicaid, which he finally had agreed to do.  But when they came to the section that asked for David’s address, David balked.   His paranoia took over:  “I don’t want my address to be out there so that God knows who knows where I live.”

This seemed an insoluble problem until Sybil had an idea.
“David, I’m your editor, right?”
“Well, yes,” David responded with a quizzical smile.
“Well since I’m your editor, you have to do what I tell you to do.  So put in your address, sign the form, and let’s get it to the office!”
Amazingly, David laughed, and signed.

When the social security checks started to arrive, Bill Pope observed, “That was the happiest I had ever seen David.”

David on 9th Street, relaxing with a glass of wine after playing a set,
Oct. 2015. 

Photo by Bill Pope

David still faced many challenges, but these good events must have made the world a bit more open and welcoming to him, like the past travel that inspired the song below.  David wrote, “I got the idea for this instrumental when I went out to Kansas to interview for a newspaper job at The Wichita Eagle.”

From the album “Changin’ My Mind,” by Cleaver Smith Swenson & McKnight.  Composed by David McKnight and John Wenberg.  David McKnight – Guitar, Fiddle, Piano; Bill Cleaver – Guitar; David Spencer – Mandolin, Electric Guitar; Joe Swenson –  Bass; Robert Smith – Harmonica; Bill Erchul – Pedal Steel Guitar; Time Rae – Percussion.

“For We Praise Those Who Love Their Friends”

As if to cap off this good news, in 2016 David attended the 50th reunion in Charlotte of our Garinger High Class of ’66 in Charlotte.  In the months leading up to our high school reunion in May of 2016, Sybil and I wrote David regularly, urging him to attend.  He was very enthusiastic about the prospect, and he remembered our classmates far better than I did.  Bill Yaeger offered to David to take him to the Durham train station to buy tickets and to take him to buy a new pair of slacks and a shirt, which David had identified as items he needed for the reunion. All looked good.  But at the last minute David became nervous and emailed Bill, saying that something had come up and he could not go with Bill to the train station. Nor to the store.  I wrote David, and after a few days finally he wrote back with the time of the arrival of his train in Charlotte.  We had no idea whether he would actually show up.  My lifelong friend Ike Casey went with me to the Charlotte station, and when the passengers came through the tunnel to disembark, there was David at the end of the line, with a big smile, a bag, and the folding chair he carried with him everywhere for when he needed to take a rest break from walking.

After we helped him check into the hotel, David and I spent a little time in his room.  “I’m worried about what people will think about my teeth,” he said.  “Not having much money all these years, I couldn’t go to a dentist.”

“Don’t worry about your teeth, David,” I replied.  “Everyone there is going to be fat or bald and/or just plain old, and people are just going to be glad to see you.”

And they were delighted to see him.  When we arrived at the reunion reception, David was seated in the lobby chatting with our good friend Deno Economou.  A little later he hobbled into the reception room and then afterwards the dining room, carrying his folding chair with him, set up at a table in the back of the room, and held court for three hours, telling stories, listening intently, and laughing that infectious laugh.  Dozens of people came up to talk with him.  As always, he amazed us with his knowledge of North Carolina history and politics.  “….So the candidate came to Governor Kerr Scott to ask for his help, and Scott said, ‘Well, I’ll come out publicly fer you or ag’in you, whichever will help you the most!’”

David in one of his many conversations at the 50th Reunion

 

David McKnight and Norris Frederick at the Garinger Wildcats reunion

The next morning after the reunion dinner and dance, I went to the hotel and found David seated at a breakfast table, where he again was holding court for several fellow alumni.   David and I drove around Charlotte, looking at the many changes since he had lived here 25 years earlier.  As we rode, he said he was so glad to see Charlotte again, and then he said, “You know, I am just about done with my work in the Triangle, and I am thinking about moving back here and doing some violin concerts, maybe a little music teaching at Queens if you can introduce me to some folks, perfesser!”

We stopped off at the Elizabeth Creamery and sat in the pleasantly warm sun on the quiet side street, enjoying a double-scoop waffle cone in the beautiful spring day.  “This is the life,” he said with a smile. I heartily agreed.  In fact, it was a wonderful day and weekend for me, too.  The re-connecting with David and my other high school friends, and re-connecting David with them, was so very meaningful for me.  And David now had a regular gig at the Farmer’s Market, an apartment, social security benefits, and a host of high school friends to add to his friends in Durham.  This is the life.

“And It Is Thought To Be A Fine Thing To Have Many Friends”

It seemed like the next day, but a few months later, it became obvious that something was wrong with David.  His friends in Durham noticed that David had started forgetting words and had even more trouble walking.  One day in November Bill Yaeger receive a call from David asking for help  — the first time he’d ever asked Bill for help. Calling from the Duke library, David said, “I can’t move my body.”  When Bill came to pick him up, David refused to go see a doctor.  So Bill took him home, where he seemed somewhat better.  The duplex was a mess:  simply nothing was ever thrown away, and newpaper were piled up everywhere.  Bill brought food to David for several days.

Niece Lorrin Freeman managed finally to get David to a doctor.  “The overarching theme that jumps out at me when it came to David’s last few months is similar to what happened in getting David’s ID: complete strangers exercising tremendous compassion and understanding.   It became obvious something was wrong with David.   He hadn’t sought actual medical care except for one incident in decades.   I located the free clinic in Durham where the doctor on duty immediately recognized David’s situation and listened to him exclaim about his life achievements before providing just the very first steps of medical assistance understanding that a full-blown medical physical would deter David from any follow up.   When he left he agreed to a next appointment within the week.”

But that follow-up visit never happened, for soon there was a time when no one saw David for days.  Bill Yaeger was the first one to get to David’s duplex.  He could tell David was in the bedroom, lying on the floor, with his considerable girth blocking the door.  Bill was able to get the door open, and found David and the room in terrible condition.  In addition to the usual newspapers and junk piled everywhere, David had lost control of his bowels and the room was putrid.  When the ambulance and the EMS workers arrived, David protested that they had no right to take him from his home.  Eventually they were able to get David into a chair and carried him in that chair to the ambulance.

Bill rode in the ambulance with David to try to keep him as calm as possible.  One of the EMS workers recognized David as the street musician and treated David as a celebrity, which improved David’s mood.  Another stranger showing compassion and understanding for David. At the Duke hospital, the doctors put David on an anti-psychotic drug, one of the rare times in his life he took medicine for his mental challenges.

David was diagnosed with brain cancer, which the doctors deemed inoperable.  David’s sister Carson and brother Pete met with Bill Yaeger and Bill Pope, and all agreed that it was unwise to pursue surgery, but that they would do everything they could to make David’s remaining time as good as possible.   David insisted that no one had the right to keep him in a hospital.  Carson writes, “David was furious with Lorrin and declared to all who would listen that she had ruined his life.”  Lorrin remembers, “David spent a lot of the last few weeks angry with me because I had confined him to a hospital and then a nursing home.   His preference was to be free and independent.   Despite that, he largely was gracious and happy to have the non-stop visitation he experienced.”

Friends and family rallied around him, getting him into a good extended care facility only two miles from where David had played the violin on 9th Street all those years.  He had visitors every day, including high school classmates Nancy Gaillard and Sybil Huskey, who came from miles away and stayed in town for days to be with David.  Former band member Joe Swenson flew in from California. Carson, her daughters Meg and Lorrin and their families, Pete, and other family came to spend time with David.   Even a policeman who knew David came and serenaded David with his guitar.  Lorrin and Pete worked with the doctors and nursing home to get David the best treatment.  Pete drove from Roanoke, Virginia, to Durham, and back again the same day to Roanoke, a two and one-half hour drive each way.   Friend Bill Pope visited frequently, and Bill Yaeger spent time with David almost every day.

David was delighted to see the friends and family, but he also said to them that he was not seriously ill and that he wanted to leave the hospital.  At times he would beg them to take him home with them until he could get back on his feet and be on his own again.  Carson remembers, “There were so many things I wanted to say to David at Pruitt, but my presence was his excuse just to dig in and needle me and insist that I get him out of there and bring him here to Greensboro. No other conversation was tolerated. I told him he required a team and I couldn’t provide that.”

It’s heart-breaking for friends and family to have such conversations with someone who is ill and in an institution.  There was some solace for Carson: when family took David to Elmo’s Diner on his last birthday to have dinner with some of his friends, he announced to the table his deep appreciation of his sister and her importance to him.

“ We Think It Is The Same People That Are Good People And Are Friends”

His many friends in Durham decided to pull together an event to honor David, to play his music and to let him know he was loved.  The event was set for Sunday, January 15 at the Blue Note Grill in Durham.

Musician friends Rebecca Newton and Pattie LeSueur posted an invite on the Blue Note’s website: “Pattie LeSueur and I want to have a few hours of great music for him, and Bill and Andrea graciously gave us The Blue Note Grill on Jan 15th. This may well be the last time David gets out to hear live music. We hope MANY folks will be involved in this tribute to him.

We’re busting David out of his facility for a few hours on Sunday, Jan 15th and paying a musical tribute to him as a thanks for 40+ years of music in the Triangle. Come join us!”

But three days before the scheduled event I got the news from Sybil that David was declining rapidly: “Bill Pope is with David as I write and says he has been sleeping all day, unable to sit up or feed himself. He thinks it is a matter of days. The music tribute is still on but will surely be a more somber event without David’s presence.  Just so sad.”

When Sunday came, over 200 of David’s friends showed up to celebrate David. The three-hour event was live-streamed to David’s room in the long-term care facility in hopes that he would be able to watch.  The friendship, love and joy that poured forth that night were inspiring.   Pattie LeSueur called out the love of the group to David, and then she and Jack LeSueur played a song they had sung with David when the three of them formed the group “Triangle” back in the 1970s.

Pattie and Jack Le Sueur, accompanied by Mike Foster.  Written by Carlene Carter .  Video by Bill Erwin of CelebrationVideos.com.
https://vimeo.com/200115898 

Among the highlights were Cleaver, Smith and Swenson, performing without McKnight, who provided a superb rendition of David’s “Back in Texas Again”:

L-R: Joe Swenson, Robert Duvall Smith, Dave Spencer, Bill Cleaver and Gary Siems. Written by David McKnight.  Video by Bill Erwin, CelebrationVideos.com.  Excerpted from  https://vimeo.com/199936592?ref=fb-share&1

Another song featured that night was David’s “Mecklenburg Waltz.”  David at one point said he was going to write a waltz for every one of North Carolina’s 100 counties.  If this one is any indication, I sure wish we’d had the other 99.  Here is David playing the violin on the waltz, in 2011.

David’s “Mecklenburg Waltz,” from a 06/09/2011 mix

Everyone there found it such a moving and meaningful event.

The Sad Message

Just two days later, on January 17, Sybil wrote with the sad words, “Meg Whalen just called to say that David passed about an hour ago, about 9 a.m. He had no pain and was peaceful to the end. With Sunday’s tribute event, one could say that he was ushered out by the music and friends/family he loved. What better way to go.”

As has been the case for me with other before, I knew David was going to die soon, but I still felt shocked.

Words fail about moments like these.  In his life David said so much with his music, and in death he left us a song he’d authored and recorded in memory of the death of his own father, “Last Call.”  It’s exactly the right song for those of us who knew and loved David.

David McKnight, Piano, Violin, Viola; Bill Cleaver; Joe Swenson Bass.  Written by David McKnight.

Last call, with its definitive ending.  But his friends were not ready to let David go.

A Memorial

After the shock of David’s death wore off, the discussion began of a memorial to David, with lots of ideas.  Ultimately it was decided that a bench would be placed at the edge of the Durham Farmer’s Market, right where David played his music.  Brother Pete worked tirelessly to make the idea a reality.  He was instrumental in raising the money for the bench and getting it designed and fabricated and to Durham.  The tribute concert for David raised over $2,000.  Pete and Bill Yaeger and others went to the Farmer’s Market to ask people to tell their stories about David and to seek funds for the bench.  Family and friends gave gifts, and the City of Durham cooperated to make the memorial a reality.  Many people came to honor and give thanks for David.

People gathering to honor David, Aug. 5, 2017
Photo by Christopher Frederick

Bill Pope’s words written shortly after David’s death capture what was in the hearts of many at the memorial dedication:   “The past year his mobility waned.  Years ago I bought him a folding metal bar stool. This allowed him to sit down while he played.  He eventually used it as a crutch and resting chair.  He would walk 10 yards or so and have to rest.  We worried about him.  He told me in October that he had completed his work.  A month later he started forgetting words. A few weeks later he couldn’t formulate sentences.  Then the diagnosis of an aggressive brain tumor.  I felt his spirit was ready to go. His work was complete. He died peacefully without pain. He spent years hoping newspapers would print his editorials.  Ironically, he finally had editorials printed.  They were about him.”

After David’s death, stories about him – tributes really – ran in Indy Week, The Charlotte Observer, The Durham Herald, and Duke Magazine.  Reading the latter tribute I realized a mistake I’d made in my first post.  David did go back and graduate from Duke, in 1974.  I don’t think he ever told me that.

The Durham Herald-Sun said it beautifully in an editorial: “McKnight’s artistry with the violin and the guitar and the quiet warmth of his personality won the hearts of many in Durham, even if they knew him only as a street musician along Ninth Street or at the edge of the Durham Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings.”[4]

David was a neighbor to so many people in Durham, and they were neighbors to him.  It’s fitting that David and the music he composed were featured in the Durham film, “Love Your Neighbor.”

“Love Your Neighbor Durham Cares,” about ?2009 (posted Oct. 2010):  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8yDgn6iQzu4 

As people gathered and speakers voiced memories of David, the bench in his honor sat covered, and on the bench sat David’s violin and a picture of him playing it on this spot.  Bill Yaeger says, “I’ve been to a lot of funerals of people who were highly accomplished, who made lots of money, and who were thought worthy.  But I don’t know anyone who had a send-off, with such uniform affection as David, both at the musical tribute and then the memorial at the Farmer’s Market.  Even with his limitations, he had such a positive effect on others.  I think he had a very happy life, rather than one associated with sadness.”

Photo by Robert Duvall Smith

After some remarks, it was time to unveil the bench memorial, below, to David.  Perhaps the greatest tribute are the words: “Musician, Journalist, Statesman, Friend.”  Most appropriately, the last word is “friend.”

 


A Christmas Gift from David and A Friend

I have one more story to tell, about the day after Christmas, 2016.  The last time I saw David was that morning.  David was sitting on the bed side talking with his friend Bill Yaeger, and his face lit up when I came in.  He knew who I was, but he had trouble calling out my name.  “I was just telling Bill about the election results in two nearby counties where Hillary had such a big victory.  And I was saying that if the Democrats had just been able to….”  The thought that had started out clearly became impossible to follow.  The cancer was doing its horrible work on his brain.

The friend left, and I stayed on with David.  I had searched Durham high and low on this cold and overcast morning after Christmas, and I finally found a place open, where I bought coffee and doughnuts. David attacked the doughnuts with gusto as he sipped the coffee.  We talked.  I asked him how he was doing.  “I’m doing all right, just having some bad days here and there.  I’ll be getting out of here soon, so I’m working on that.”

When it came time for me to go, I said, “It’s so good to see you, Dave.  You’re a good friend and I love you.”  He seemed a little startled by my words, but he smiled and said, “Thanks so much for coming by.  You’re a good friend, too.  I will see you soon.”

I sat in my car and cried.

Later that same day after Christmas, David’s friend and long-time musical partner Bruce Emery (together they created three  CD’s)  came to visit David.  Here is Bruce’s story.

“I had brought the mandolin along on visits several times, but he declined to play, saying that while he was physically capable he couldn’t do it psychologically.  The day after Christmas, I was playing some of the guitar parts from our duets, and I hit upon ‘Ode to Joy,’ which David was always happy to sing along to, in German of course.  So I slyly asked him if he could remember those lyrics, and got him to sing along.  Then I offered him the mandolin, and he agreed to play, but only after a bathroom break, during which he later said he was getting his courage up.  After we did ‘Ode to Joy,’ a new melody just popped out of his hands, and I had glimpse of the old David, getting reacquainted with an old instrumental friend. I groped around for some chords that would work and we recorded it. He composed it on the spot and wanted to call it ‘Looking Up’ or ‘Ready for a Change’ or something hopeful like that.  He was very pleased and uplifted by the experience. We agreed that we would do that again next visit.  I left on a real high.  Of course, by the time I had returned, he had clearly gone around another bend in the road, and I didn’t even bring it up.  But for a moment there we back at the Global Village coffee shop, trading chords and licks and grins.”

Here is David playing “Ready for a Change.”

David McKnight, mandolin, and Bruce Emery, guitar.
Recorded at PruittHealth – Durham, December 26, 2016.

Final Reflections

 In my previous post I questioned whether David’s friendships met Aristotle’s idea of a complete friendship, given David’s character flaws.  I concluded that 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.  None of us are perfect in our traits.  For example, me. When David voiced ideas about moving back to Charlotte, I did not explore that further with him, not being willing to imagine what it would be like for me if David were living here.  His last email to me, on November 4, 2016, focused on his ideas about moving back to Charlotte.  I never encouraged him in that idea.  Nor did I travel enough to Durham to visit him.

Even David’s niece Lorrin, who did so very much for him, questions whether she did enough. “I loved David – and like many – wish I had done more to be with him while he was here.   As you know, being with David was not always easy.   He didn’t dwell on his misfortune, almost always demonstrating joie de vivre.  So neither shall I.”

And it was difficult to be friends on a daily basis with David.  His paranoia, his refusal to accept medical help, his fierce and sometimes seemingly irrational independence, his lack of personal hygiene, and other traits made it a challenge.  David kept putting off applying for Social Security, yet it did not seem to occur to him that friends were supplementing his busking income so he could have food and shelter.  As a house guest David paid little attention to cleanliness.  He ate an enormous amount of food, understandable since he might not know when he’d have his next meal, but he was helpless about preparing meals or cleaning up afterwards.

One friend captures well what must have been the experience of all of David’s close friends: “At times I had to pinch myself and say, ‘he’s the one who is mentally ill.’ David’s friendship meant a lot to us, and the frustrations came mostly from his unwillingness to accept help.”  Another friend said, “I miss David and at the same time, he could really drive me crazy.”

But that latter friend goes on to write, “I do miss his deep-down goodness and sweetness and humor.”  David was also warm, witty, knowledgeable, gifted, and creative.  He was generous when he could be.  Bill Yaeger writes, “When he started receiving Social Security he enjoyed hosting me for a couple of nice restaurant meals.”

When I look at friendships I’ve known and observed in my life, I feel an overwhelming admiration for both David and his friends.  When I think of the type of thing a friendship is and what it can be, I am convinced that his were complete friendships.  Who could imagine more than what David’s friends gave to him, and what David gave to his friends? David was a friend to all those people and to me.  He gave of himself joyfully, and people gave to him willingly.  While certainly they must also have felt some sense of obligation, friends who visited him in the hospital wanted to be there with David and for David.  Another statement from Aristotle rings true for me now:  “friendship is not only necessary but also noble; for we praise those who love their friends, and it is thought to be a fine thing to have many friends; and again we think it is the same people that are good people and are friends.”[5]  I am inspired by those many good friends of David, by their and David’s nobility.  They are indeed friends and good people.

As Lorrin writes, “David had the most amazing friends.   My observation near the end of his life was that all these people surrounded and helped him because they genuinely loved him but also because David had been a good friend over the years – keeping up with their happenings and encouraging them along.   A personal example of this was when I was Clerk of Court in Wake County hosting the other one hundred Clerks from across the State for dinner during our annual conference.   David wrote and sent me a poem in which he worked in all one hundred counties.”

You could give David the name of any city or town in North Carolina, and David could tell you the corresponding country.

*****

I began these three posts on friendship and David McKnight by asking whether his life was a tragedy.  I wasn’t with David daily like his friends and family.  I didn’t know the daily heartbreak of dealing with his mental challenges.  I did know the young and beautiful David, and I saw his world come tumbling down, bit by bit.  When I think of what might have been for David, without his mental issues, without the cancer, his life is tragic.

But when I think of all the lives that David touched for the better, of the over 200 friends and musicians who turned out for a benefit and tribute to him near the end of his life, of all the people he enjoyed and knew were his friends, of the joy he brought to his friends, when I think of the beautiful music he played and recorded all these years, even when homeless, I think not just of tragedy but of overcoming, of triumph, of transcendence, of redemption, of a small world of people brought together by music, stories, laughter and friendship. 

And I think of someone who in many ways lived life on his own terms, despite his limitations.  We all live lives within our limitations; most of ours just aren’t as readily visible as David’s.

David, you were not only gifted, but you gave us irreplaceable gifts.  Thanks for it all, David.  I still miss you.  We all do.

Some say David isn’t totally gone.  Some say he is back in Texas again, or somewhere else, thinking about coming back to Carolina.  Listen to his voice and his violin here, and you will know that his spirit lives in his music.

“Tell ‘em back in Caroline, I’m doing swell, and feeling fine,
Tell ‘em back in Caroline, it won’t be long til I’m in those pines.”


 How to obtain David’s music

 There are several options:  YouTube, I-Tunes, Amazon music, and CD’s.  For the online sources, search for “Cleaver Smith Swenson” to pull up both the earlier album “Back Home Again” and also the later album when the group had become Cleaver Smith Swenson & McKnight, “Changin’ My Mind.”  I will list below specific songs by David.  You can also order these CD’s from Robert Smith, robertdsmith@mindspring.com .  Bruce Emery and David McKnight have 3 CD’s, of which the first is Christmas music and others familiar tunes: “All is Calm, All is Bright”; “Night and Day”; and “Windy and Warm.”  You can order from Bruce, bruceemery@mindspring.com.  I recommend all five of these albums.

A couple of days after our high school reunion, David sent out an energized and upbeat email to many classmates, saying how much he enjoyed the reunion.  He sent the list below as a “sampler” of the songs “I have been involved with during my breaks from journalism writing and academic research.” He closed the message with characteristic good humor:  “First the good news: That’s all the songs for this music mailer to GHS ’66. Now the bad news: There are some more on the way!”

Here is the list David provided:

1979 — Three Songs Playing Violin for Folksingers Pattie and Jack LeSueur
“Wheels” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LfBnriwC3ws
“Two More Bottles of Wine” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xca2C8Ywaa0
“Easy From Now On” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-oB4DqpdinE

2000 — Original Songs with Cleaver Smith & Swenson
“Now Our Love Is Here to Stay” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ccsMmqLnChE
“Listen to Me” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGEOEl8GTpk

2006 — Five Original Instrumentals and Songs with Cleaver Smith Swenson & McKnight
“Ridin’ On Kansas” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-MMaBo21MY
“Last Call” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o17ARmJ0OT8

“Autumntime in Massachusetts”[YouTube got the title switched with another song, but this is the Autumntime song track.] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h61BVwdNlVQ
“Block and a Half” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWoLgE5fKtY
“I’m Back in Texas Again” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJdRow1tgP8


 

[1]Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 8, chapter 1, W.D. Ross translation (The Internet Classics      Archive,  http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html ), with minor changes by Frederick.
[2] Bill Pope, unpublished memories about David McKnight, 2017.[3] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 8, chapter 1, translated and notes by C.D.C. Reeve (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 2014.
[4] Durham Herald-Sun, Jan. 21, 2017.
[5] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 8, chapter 1, Ross translation.

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 My 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
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtEAzOym_Ww

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

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[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”

Philosophy Unlimited: Intelligent Pleasure

by Dr. Norris Frederick

20160910_195157

One of the joys of travel to another country is the discovery of new landscapes, new customs and cultures, and new people.  We find some ways in which the culture and people differ from our own, as well as ways in which they are similar.  If we are open, we find we can learn from both the differences and similarities. This is especially true if we are not just tourists (spectators) but are being-with the people of that country.  Upon return we think about some ways we might think and live differently, and are reaffirmed about other of our current habits of thinking and being.

The same is true of traveling to other philosophies and their worldviews (which is a darn lot cheaper than travelling to other countries, not that it must be an either/or).  Everyone has a worldview, and a key value of philosophy lies in helping us bring our worldviews to consciousness and thus enabling us to compare them to other worldviews.  Maybe I will name this type of travel “Philosophy Time-Travel Unlimited:  Experiencing Worldviews since 600 BC.”

If we reverse the metaphor of our travel abroad, visitors to the USA from developing nations are often overwhelmed by the vast array of goods in our stores.  If you are like me, you’re having a related experience as you enter stores from early October on: astoundingly, even though I know it happens every year, Christmas decorations and items are already appearing in stores.  Nerves tense, stomachs tighten, with the obligation to buy gifts that will bring the requisite pleasure to friends and family.  All this is just part of a bigger picture of the race for pleasure in which many of us engage.  “Buying and selling” has become so dominant that it threatens to enslave us.  It’s not that there is anything wrong with pleasure; in fact, a life without any would be very grim.   It’s just that we go about seeking pleasure in such an unintelligent manner.  We can learn much from philosophy traveling to Greece, about 300 BC, to experience being-with Epicurus, whose worldview is all about pleasure, but an intelligent version of it.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 B.C.) taught that pleasure is the ultimate good, “the alpha and omega of a blessed life.”[1]  Although he was a hedonist (from Greek, hedone,  meaning “pleasure”), his hedonism is quite different from ours.    To experience his worldview, we need to listen to a few of his central ideas about his metaphysics (what’s really real) of the physical universe and the self, and his view of what’s valuable, which Epicurus says is pleasure

Epicurus was a materialist, writing over 2,000 years ago that everything in the universe consists of “atoms” (from the Greek word meaning “not divisible”).  Unlike modern scientists who used sophisticated equipment to discover the atom, Epicurus used only reason.  Take any object, such as a tree.  Divide that tree by cutting off its limbs and sectioning its trunk.  Start cutting a limb into as small parts as possible.  Ultimately, continuing this thought experiment, one gets to the point where the matter that is left can’t be cut any smaller: the atoms of the tree.  Not only the tree, but all beings in the world – including humans – are made of atoms.  Our minds consist of “fine atoms,” which register the sense-impressions of other atoms.

As the several types of atoms move through empty space they “hook up,” creating objects:  trees, cows, humans, you name it.  The huge oak trees in front of my university succumbed to disease last month and now they no longer exist.  Through one process or another, all beings – including humans – perish.  Only the atoms are eternal.  I will not live forever.

While not living forever sounds incredibly depressing, the realization of that truth can actually be liberating.  Epicurus teaches that if we reflect on our material nature, we see that we have nothing to fear from death.  When the atoms that form “me” are no longer connected, I no longer exist. “Death, therefore, thought the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”[2]

Epicurus certainly did not think that someone hearing or reading these words for the first time would be rid of their fear of death.  But the friends who lived with him in the community named “the Garden” outside of Athens learned to tame their fears by frequent repetition of the phrase:

“Where I am, death is not;
Where death is, I am not.”

But you, being a critical thinker, ask Epicurus, “Shouldn’t hedonists, even if they don’t fear death, bemoan the loss of future pleasure?” Not so, he replies, if we understand the nature of pleasure.  Seeking pleasure intelligently does not mean that we “choose every pleasure whatsoever, but we will often pass over many pleasures when a greater annoyance ensues from them.”[3]  Many of us are caught on the hedonic treadmill.  If I just had the next thing, I would be happy.  But then i get the next thing, and soon that’s not enough and I’m back to being unhappy, so I say to myself if I just had one more next thing I would be happy.  The process is repeated.   And I continue anxiously looking for the next thing that will make me happy.  Worrying that death will cost us future pleasures is yet another way of missing the enjoyment of the pleasures are right here in the present.

Instead, says Epicurus to his community, we should choose pleasures that are simple and that are not followed by painful consequences. “Plain fare gives as much pleasure as a costly diet, when once the pain of want has been removed, while bread and water confer the highest possible pleasure when they are brought to hungry lips.”  Simple food and wine, friendship, reading and thinking are the type of pleasures that make for a good life.   The expensive meals, cars, and houses not only don’t bring happiness because they are part of our being on the hedonic treadmill, but because they also bring about the anxiety of being able to pay for them.  We are enslaved by our desires and our objects.  Pleasure, properly understood, is “the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul.”[4]

To our 21st century minds, Epicurus’ definition is not at all what we mean by pleasure: it’s not Disney World, or the new cell phone, or the ability to spend $5,000 on a dinner as celebrities are reported to do.   Epicurus’ pleasure is in a sense negative: the absence of pain physically and psychically.  What’s the good of that?

The good of an Epicurean understanding of pleasure is that it opens us to something broader and deeper and infinitely more satisfying, the awareness of being, the astonishing fact of being alive when I might not exist at all.[5]  Like everything else in the universe, I might never have existed, and I might not tomorrow, but I do now!  It’s astonishing to be here, in this place, right now.

I suggest you try going beyond just thinking about his ideas and try them out.  To experience his philosophy, remind yourself that you have all the simple pleasures you need.  Then step out into a quiet place on one of these cool fall mornings or nights, and contemplate these words of Lucretius, a Roman follower of Epicurus in the first century B.C.E.:

First of all, the bright, clear color of the sky, and all it holds within it, the stars that wander here and there, and the moon and the radiance of the sun with its brilliant light; all these, if now they had been seen for the first time by the mortals, if, unexpectedly, they were in a moment placed before their eyes, what story could be told more marvelous than these things, or what that the nations would less dare to believe beforehand? Nothing, I believe; so worthy of wonder would this sight have been.  Yet think how no one now, wearied with satiety of seeing, deigns to gaze up at the shining quarters of the sky![6]

 

(If you’d like to comment or ask questions, please go to https://philosophyforlivingtoday.org and click on the
“Leave a Comment” tab at the top of this post.)
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References and Credits:

[1] Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus,” translated by Robert Drew Hick, http://classics.mit.edu/Epicurus/menoec.html
[2]
“Letter to Menoeceus”
[3] “Letter to Menoeceus”
[4] “Letter to Menoeceus”
[5]  Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?,  translated by Michael Chase, 126 (Belknap Press, 2002).
[6]  Luretius, On The Nature of Things, as quoted in Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, ed. by Arnold Davidson and translated by Michael Chase (Blackwell, Publishing 1995), 258.

Photo Credit:  Norris Frederick