December 30, 2006


El Cabrero has resolved to be a better person in the coming year and can think of no better way to do this than to reflect on the subject of ethics and morality.
However, my earnest efforts for self-improvement have been stymied by philosophical confusion.
In order to resolve that issue, it seemed necessary to me to discuss these dilemmas with someone with unassailable moral standing and a reputation for wisdom.
At Goat Rope Farm, that means alpine goat Arcadia S. Venus. What follows is a transcription of a philosophical dialogue between us.
EC: Venus, thanks for taking time for this little talk. As you know, I really want to be a better person this year and I'm not sure how to get there.
VENUS: Whatever.
EC: I've consulted the wisdom of the ages and found that philosophers disagree on how to do it. Some say that what really matters is our motivation while others think its what we really do. If I could figure that out, I'd have a better sense of which way to go.
VENUS: Are you going to talk all day or are you going to give me some alfalfa cubes?
EC: In a minute. According to the deontological school, it's all about intention. If I mean well, that's the main thing, regardless of how it turns out. But then we know from experience and psychology that all human motivations are ambiguous and we can even deceive ourselves about them.
VENUS: Cubes. Apples. Some of those things you keep in that jar.
EC: And then, sometimes we do the right things for the wrong reasons and vice versa. Is it better to have really bad or cynical motivations if you do things that are good or to mean well and do things that don't work out?
VENUS: Slice the apples first. And don't drop them. When you finally get around to it.
EC: But Venus, I really can't get around to being a better person until I figure this out. This is serious!
VENUS: You're still just talking.
EC: Alright, let's use an example. Suppose I intend to give you an alfalfa cube but don't. Would that be just as good as the real thing?
VENUS: That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard.
EC: Or suppose I didn't really mean to but left a bunch of alfalfa cubes just lying around where you could get into them?
VENUS: That's what I'm talking about!
EC: So you're saying that what we really do matters more than just intentions?
VENUS: How are those alfalfa cubes coming?
EC: Thanks, Venus, now I think I understand. It's all about what we really do! Now maybe I really can start being a better person. I feel so much better after talking to you!
VENUS: Are you still here?
(Note: Goat Rope will resume regular posts on Jan. 2. Happy New Year!)

December 27, 2006


Caption: Hast any philosophy in thee, shepherd? Castor the curious peacock does! In this photo, he contemplates the meaning of being.

During the usually slack time between Christmas and New Year's Goat Rope will highlight greatest hits from El Cabrero's 2006 reading list.

Yesterday's post featured Vermont poet David Budbill. Today's is philosopher Karl Popper, whose works include The Poverty of Historicism and this year's winner, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vols. I and II.

In these books, written around the time of the nearly triumphant totalitariansm of the 1940s, Popper takes merciless aim at theoretical and practical totalitarians of the right and left.

Speaking of poets and philosophers, Popper slams the later Plato, who would have banned uncensored poets from his Republic, as an early apologist for authoritarianism. He is especially merciless to Hegel, who I still kind of like, and is respectful of but severely critical of Marx.

For Popper, people have a temptation to want to return to the closed society of tribalism which we often pretend to remember as a golden age as a way of escaping from the messiness of modern life. He argues that we can't go back (even if we think it's forward) and it would be bad if we did.

There are no laws of history or ready made utopias to save us. Our best hope is to try to preserve democracy and try to improve social ills through trial and error. Here's a sample from the rousing last paragraph:

"We can return to the beasts. But if we wish to remain human, then there is only one way, the way into the open society. We must go on into the unknown, the uncertain and insecure, using what reason we may have to plan as well as we can for both security and freedom."

He doesn't rise to the rhetorical heights of Camus, but they two are kind of on the same page.


December 26, 2006


Caption: The state of Vermont graciously agreed to pose for this picture.

El Cabrero is pretty sure most of you guys are slacking off at this time of year and is quite willing to join you.

Between now and New Year's, Goat Rope will highlight some of the best books I've read this year (although they were not generally published this year).

The hands-down winner of the Goat Rope Poet of the Year is David Budbill of Vermont, whose poetry chronicles the imaginary but real village of Judevine in that state's Northeast Kingdom.

I go to Vermont quite a bit to visit inlaws and it is a great state, even if it's not as endearingly screwed up as El Cabrero's Beloved State of West Virginia.

Though not a native of that state, Budbill has lived there for many years and has a very strong sense of place. Here are three books that I'd particularly recommend.

The first is Judevine, which is set in and around that village and captures many of the voices and stories of its residents.

Two others are in the modern iteration of the Chinese Zen/Taoist mountain poetry tradition: While We've Still Got Feet and Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse.

El Cabrero is himself aspires to be a reclusive Taoist mountain sage (of the High Church Anglican/Mahayana variety) and knows from experience that it's not easy, especially if one is not a sage and has trouble with the recluse part. One amusing theme of these poems is the contradiction between higher aspirations and our ordinary foibles.

Here's particular favorite of mine on the difficulty of maintaining equanimity (it also illustrates the difference between Taoism and strict forms of Buddhism):

Ahimsa Next Time, Maybe


The Taoist Mountain Recluse

Stands in his Summer Garden and

Says to the Deerfly About to Bite Him

Back to the undifferentiated Tao,
you son of a bitch!

And he smashes the triangular fly
into the hairs on his dirty brown arm.

(Comment: they really do have some nasty bugs up there.)