By Lawrence “Mack in Texas” Hall (Rated G)
Tom Morris is a modern American philosopher of such influence that he once persuaded a board or committee of august personages at Notre Dame that I should be on the faculty.
And I was.
For a few weeks one summer.
Along with a dozen or so other recipients of a summer National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Fellowship in the long ago.
The maître d’ / headwaiter / manager of the faculty dining room was definitely not impressed, but that’s a story for another paragraph.
In illo tempore Dr. Morris (“Call me Tom”) was a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, entrusted by President Reagan and William Bennett, then chairman – no human is a chair – of the National Endowment for the Humanities, to divert some of that endowment to a few mere high school teachers. Now Tom writes books, books of such great wisdom and clarity that you and I can understand them, and speaks to groups of the wise and the powerful (and possibly sometimes to the merely silly) all over the world.
And so it came to pass that I filled out forms and wrote essays and was chosen to participate in an NEH Summer Seminar to study philosophy with brilliant and funny Professor Morris at the University of Notre Dame.
A year or so later Tom asked several of us to read a draft of his work in progress, Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life.
My contribution is a comma on page 34. I’m very proud of that comma, so if you find that book please do look up my comma. You can then say that you know someone who made a significant contribution to a brilliant contemporary work of philosophy easily understood by all (even by me).
All this babbling is a too-long preface to a marvelous recent book by Tom, The Oasis Within. The book is a series of little lessons and thinking exercises framed in the story of a boy and his uncle on a camel caravan through Egypt in 1934.
The story can be read solely as a story, and it would be both diverting and useful, but the thinking reader will also consider the many questions about the meanings in one’s life and the nature of the good, the true, and the beautiful. In an unhappy time when discourse is pretty much limited to people screaming ill-considered absolutes at each other, we listen to young Walid and his Uncle Ali reflect on the events of each day progress in their journey, and their friends Hamid, Masoon (warrior and cook), Hakeem, Bancom, an unnamed lady of great wisdom, other travelers and business people, and treacherous (Boooo! Hissss!) Faisul.
In the end, Walid learns that he is a royal prince, but that adventure is developed further in the next book in the series, The Golden Palace and The Stone of Giza.
Every event in the story is of course itself and each chapter is centered on daily happenings along the way, but each is also representative of the challenges everyone faces in life and the need for careful observation followed by ethical and rational choices. Each chapter, then, can be considered as a leisurely daily lesson in perceiving, thinking, feeling, and developing logical solutions in pursuit of an ethical purpose.
The Oasis Within is not a religious book, nor is it antithetical to any religious faith, except perhaps to those who believe in The Lizard People and albino monks lurking in secret caves beneath the Pentagon.
A common misapprehension is that philosophy is an alternative to faith, which is simply not so. “Philosophy” is Greek for the love of wisdom, and wisdom is but careful observation and wise application. On pages 123 and 138, for instance, the consideration of a duality at first struck me through my filter of Christianity as sailing close to Manichaeism, and I quibble with the use of the terms “fate” and “destiny” on page 145, but then this book is not a religious text, and, after all, a happy and challenging debate on any topic is an essential of civilization.
When we install a new battery in the lawn mower or a car, there are but two choices about electrical polarity – we connect the cables and battery positive to positive and negative to negative. There is no trinitarian doctrine of the battery, and “positive” and “negative” in the context of a vehicle’s electrical system are not value judgments.
Thus it is with books of philosophy and conversations with Uncle Ali. We listen to each other and we learn from each other. If we scream at each other then nothing worthy is accomplished.
The Oasis Within is available from amazon.com as an inexpensive paperback.
And now, let us harken back to those golden days of yesteryear.
One day we chose to exercise a faculty privilege and enjoy lunch at the faculty club. We dressed up (in those Ye Olden Days, nice dresses for most of the women and blazers and ties for most of the men), and with our faculty cards in hand presented ourselves.
The courtesies and kindnesses extended to us by Professor Morris and, indeed, every academic we were privileged to meet at Notre Dame did not extend to the faculty club. The maître d’ / headwaiter / manager regarded us with the icy disdain of Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha finding a caterpillar in her vichyssoise, and only after some persuasion and presentations of proofs of our specialness and a bit of standing our ground and refusing to go away were we hoi polloi (that’s like, you know, Greek, and, like, stuff… the only Greek I know) grudgingly permitted to enter the dining room. The poor man did not tell us to wipe our feet or refrain from blowing our noses on the linen napkins, but we could tell that he was not anticipating appropriate demeanor from us.
In the event we enjoyed a perfectly nice lunch, lifted a glass in honor of our wise professor, discussed Blaise Pascal’s Pensees, (I had seen a working reproduction of his calculating machine, ca 1642, at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, but no one was impressed), and refrained from putting our feet on the table or throw bread rolls at anyone.
I think Uncle Ali would concur that not putting one’s feet on the table or throwing bread rolls at lunch comes under topic #6 of the Seven Secrets, about developing good character.
The headwaiter would probably agree.
Image of the The Oasis Within copyright Wisdom/Works & Tom Morris.