Book Report: Every Time I Find The Meaning of Life, They Change It by Daniel Klein (2015)

Book coverAs you might remember, gentle reader, I read Klein’s Travels with Epicurus earlier this summer and enjoyed it. So I found myself at a different library branch a couple weeks ago, and I was in the philosophy section, and I saw a book that looked like it was a Klein, but it was a different author with a different spin on it. But a couple letters later, I found an actual book by Klein, this volume, from 2015.

The jumping off point for this book is a collection of quotes that Klein collected during his youth and then later. He had a notebook where he copied “Pithies” as he called them, and he reprints them with a couple pages’ reflection on each. You’ve got your Epicurus, of course, and you’ve got your Neitsche, Russell, Emerson, and whatnot. Each quote he selects is a complete jot of philosophy, a koan of sorts to muse on, and he does so.

It’s an entertaining read, a bit of a stroll through philosophy and modern life. It’s accessible and proper old school philosophy, something you can read and think about. It’s funny as I read philosophy these days, the tiers of books you find. Original sources, especially pre-20th century primary texts, are generally readable and digestible in their original form. But when you get to some stuff in the late 19th century, some of the more self-consciously philosophical in the 20th century, and especially the commentary on primary text from the 20th century written by academics, you get incomprehensible mash-ups of academic speak. Pop philosophy books, which I think are a 21st century inventions (but I could be mistaken), offer a return, almost, to the readable primary texts, but these are commentaries and not primary texts themselves. They’re like written forms of the conversations I had when I was younger (and sometimes still do now that I’m reading and listening to philosophy lectures regularly).

At any rate, I enjoyed most of it, and I didn’t disagree vehemently with any of it. There’s a bit in it where he quotes a philosopher who was born after I was, an ethicist and psychologist who explains how we treat those in our tribe differently from those outside our tribe, and how we should work to bridge the gap between the instinctive, immediate moral judgments placed on our tribe with the reasoned ones applied to others outside the tribe. That is, we should treat everyone as compassionately as we treat those inside our tribe. This is descriptive and not really prescriptive as one who is a deontologist would hope for. A proper deontologist would recognize we’re more instantly forgiving of those like us, but we point out that a standard that we apply to both those like us and unlike us would be an objective standard. Too often in the modern era, the prescription based on this position is to apply a standard of forgiveness and non-judgment to people who would not apply the same standard to ourselves. While this is very Christian (and, indeed, as modern life shows us, also post-Christian), I am not eager to forgive those who would do me harm and to invite them to dinner.

This description, this bit of anthropology, meshes with a modern drive to equate psychology and philosophy that I don’t embrace.

Also, it adds one to my list: Persons I don’t trust immediately if they are younger than I am: Doctors, clergy, and (NEW!) philosophers.

At any rate, I enjoyed it and should probably consider buying one of his books new so he can get paid for my enjoyment instead of me continuing to freeload from the library. I’ll look for his next book (or something off of his backlist) the next time I’m at Barnes and Noble or some other bookstore on vacation.

Oh, and I would be remiss in not bragging about how much the reading of philosophy and whatnot has made me recognize things and the names of the people in the book. To whit: The title is a quote by Reinhold Niebuhr. And in a section riffing on a comment by A.J. Ayer, a British atheist, he mentions that Ayer debated and later consulted with Frederick Copleston, a clergeyman. But the Klein does not mention that Copleston, S.J., wrote a long series of books called The History of Philosophy. I know this because I have the series and actually started on part 1 of Volume I last year. I AM SMAHT!