Category Archives: death

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 

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,  Excerpted from

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): 

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, .  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,  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
“Two More Bottles of Wine”
“Easy From Now On”

2000 — Original Songs with Cleaver Smith & Swenson
“Now Our Love Is Here to Stay”
“Listen to Me”

2006 — Five Original Instrumentals and Songs with Cleaver Smith Swenson & McKnight
“Ridin’ On Kansas”
“Last Call”

“Autumntime in Massachusetts”[YouTube got the title switched with another song, but this is the Autumntime song track.]
“Block and a Half”
“I’m Back in Texas Again”


[1]Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 8, chapter 1, W.D. Ross translation (The Internet Classics      Archive, ), 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.

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; ; and .

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


Philosophy Unlimited: Intelligent Pleasure

by Dr. Norris Frederick


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]


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References and Credits:

[1] Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus,” translated by Robert Drew Hick,
“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

Thrown-ness: Understanding an experience of disruption

by Dr.  Norris Frederick

Philosophy offers us new ways of seeing the world and living in the world, thus helping us live and enriching our consciousness.  At first these new insights create a rupture in our thinking and feeling and an unpleasant sense of dizziness or confusion.   However, if we learn to persist in integrating new ways of thinking and being into our lives, we also come to experience feeling excited at the possibilities offered by philosophical challenges and we broaden our understanding of reality.

One of those insights is that of “thrown-ness,” first named and elucidated by the German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976), author of Being and Time.  What’s it like to be a human being?  Are there characteristics of experience that all humans share?  Heidegger thought so.  We ordinarily are engaged in activities and tasks in ways in which we use the objects and tools around us.  I type these thoughts but as I do so I’m not focused on the keyboard. We dig with a shovel but we’re not focused on the shovel but rather on the topsoil we’re blending into the garden.  We live with a family with whom we prepare meals and clean the house.  We’re engaged in what we do.

But then one day the handle snaps off the blade of the shovel, or a grandmother dies.  Suddenly my attention shifts from the task at hand to the presence of the shovel I was barely aware of before and to the missing presence of the grandmother.  I am jerked from my ordinary pursuits into a disorienting sense of looking at beings in a strange way.  My grandmother was just here, solid and real and fully being, and now she is gone.

I was 13 when my grandmother died, and her death led to a series of reflections in my consciousness.  There were the comforting reflections from family and friends (“she’s now with grandpa in heaven”), but simultaneously there was also the unpleasant experience that people can be here one moment and gone the next.  As we get older we get used to death in most cases as we go about our daily tasks, but there is always an opening in which we can sense the presence of death, the absence of a loved one, in a way akin to vertigo.  (I think of Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s Vertigo spinning round and round as he goes down, down, down).

Stewart in Vertigo

For me, these reflections led to my first experience of “thrown-ness,” although of course I didn’t know this strange word.  After the shock and after the funeral of this kind woman with whom my family lived, I began to have a related sense of vertigo that began one day as I sat on our porch after school, trying to catch a breeze in that hot Carolina September.  I thought about and looked at my parents, sisters, and brother:  who ARE these people? In my altered state, I now had an alien strangeness about them.  Previously I was engaged in everyday life with them and never thought anything about it – they’re my family–  but now I wondered WHY am I in this family?  Couldn’t I have been living with some other family?  And would I have been someone else?  WHY was I born into this family, with these people?

For a teenage boy whose main interest was baseball and who was just beginning an interest in girls, it was a strange and disorienting feeling.  So strange that I never told anyone about the experience for years.  I was experiencing “thrown-ness”:  we are thrown into the world in a way not of our choosing.  We don’t choose our family, the century we’re born, nor the country and culture of our birth.  While I was well aware of making choices (“Shall we play baseball this morning?”), the reality of the “thrown-ness” of life hit me like a fastball straight to the pit of my stomach.  Worse, just when I thought this feeling had gone away, it returned at unexpected times like when we were all sitting down to watch “Gunsmoke” on Saturday night.  Who ARE these people? And who am I?

Not only is the existence of shovels and people contingent on circumstances, but our relationships and thus who we are is contingent in ways in which many of us are not aware in everyday life.  The idea of thrown-ness expands and deepens our understanding of reality.  The idea of thrown-ness also offers to us the reality that we are not alone in this contingency.  My teenage experience of thrown-ness resulted from my new awareness of death and my family.  At the time I felt that something was strange and wrong with me to even feel this sense of alienation, but now when I read Heidegger’s thoughts about thrown-ness, I no longer feel estranged but companioned.