The Serendipitous Patterns of Narrative Ethics

Or Some Funny Things Happened on the Way to the Theatre

Serendipity.  Look for something, find something else, and realize that what you’ve found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for.

— Lawrence Block

You don’t reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings serendipitously.

— John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor

Serendipity is the faculty of finding things we did not know we were looking for.

— Glauco Ortolano

This past week I went to the revival production of Tom Soppard’s Arcadia in London’s West End.  Seeing this beautiful play in its native environment was pure joy.  But the constellation of ideas that played out before and after the experience was simply extraordinary.  The play is a theatrical presentation of serendipity – of coincidence and the magic of human entanglements.  My Oxford sabbatical, now sadly coming to an end, has itself been a lived, serendipitous wonder.  Somehow all of this became dramatically obvious while watching Arcadia.  This is a layered story, both Arcadia and my own experiences surrounding the drama.

One of the great anticipations of coming to Oxford this year was the opportunity to attend the John Locke Lectures in Philosophy – arguably the most prestigious venue for philosophy and ethics in the world.  This year’s lecturer, Harvard’s T. M. Scanlon, is someone I have read (What We Owe Each Other) and admire.   His five lectures were deeply disappointing to me.  The most disappointing part was how inaccessible Professor Scanlon made his presentation.  Reading his pages and without even occasional eye contact with his audience, without as well, metaphor, illustration, narrative or any humanizing reference, he was truly talking to himself.  Well, reading to himself, out loud.

Leaving the final lecture I talked with a friend – Linda McFadden, herself a theologian and author –who had on my invitation come up to Oxford to attend the lecture, about the importance of ethics having a narrative character, no matter the school or approach of the ethicist.  Scanlon is a contractarian in the distinguished tradition of Hobbes, Kant and John Rawls.  But whereas each of those members of the ethical pantheon are famous for their use of metaphor and narrative to explicate their often-difficult ideas, Scanlon, at least upon this occasion, demurred.   All the more surprising in that Scanlon’s lectures were all about how norms are related to motivation and intent, an extraordinary opportunity for giving all those obscure words flesh and sinew.

A few weeks before and quite by accident Linda, who graciously suffered through Scanlon’s Last Lecture with me, happened to run across South African author J. M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace. She had noticed the volume on a bookshelf in the loo of the flat she is borrowing in London.  On the way to attending the Scanlon lecture, as we passed by Blackwell’s Bookstore, we noticed that Coetzee was soon to make a presentation himself in Oxford at the Sheldonian Theatre.  I promised I would get us tickets to Coetzee’s reading.  I had previously downloaded the Audible.com recording of the novel Disgrace, and was enjoying listening to Coetzee’s absorbing story of a disgraced aging professor and life in post apartheid South Africa.  Two weeks later Linda and I were part of a packed house to hear Coetzee read from his fictional biography, Summertime (2009).

J. M. Coetzee is a shy and pensive presence.  To his obvious embarrassment, he was too elaborately introduced by the chairperson of the English Department of Oxford University.  Like Scanlon, Coetzee read his presentation, seldom looking up or making eye contact with the standing room only audience.  But there all similarity ends. Summertime is a richly human story, intimate, self deprecating, moving.  Coetzee’s own personal risk-taking in the telling of the tale passionately encompassed us all. Then, we the audience further embarrassed the great author by excessive, standing applause.

J. M. Coetzee

J. M. Coetzee

10:00 AM the next morning could not come soon enough for me.  Blackwell’s Book Store on Broad Street Oxford, which had sponsored the Coetzee event, opens at 10:00 AM.  I was there.  Front and center on the ground floor were almost all of Coetzee’s fifteen books – priced 3 for 2!  One of my three purchases was The Lives of Animals.  And bingo (!) there was narrative ethics as it ought to be done.  In 1997 Coetzee was invited to give a series of lectures on ethics at Princeton University (The Tanner Lectures).   The parallels between the Locke Lectures and the Tanner Lectures is more than a little coincidental.  But what Coetzee did at Princeton in 1997 was extraordinary:

“Like the typical Tanner Lectures, Coetzee’s lectures focus on an important ethical issue – the way human beings treat animals – but the form of Coetzee’s lectures is far from the typical Tanner Lectures, which are generally philosophical essays.  Coetzee’s lectures are fictional in form: two lectures within two lectures, which contain a critique of a more typical philosophical approach to the topic of animal rights.”  (“Introduction” by Amy Gutman, p. 3, The Lives of Animals, J. M. Coetzee.)

A story within a lecture within a story of a lecture, on ethics!  Read it.  You will not feel lectured to, but you will be engulfed and engaged in one of the thorniest ethical issues we human beings face.  I am an outrageous omnivore, inclined toward the carnivorous aspects thereof.  Mostly I think Vegans, as their appellation suggests, should have their own planet.   In The Lives of Animals, Coetzee engulfed me in an ethical disequilibrium I would have thought impossible.

On Thursday of last week I went into London both to attend Stoppard’s play as well as to visit the British Library.  The side visit to the BL was to see the most famous edition of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan in existence.  In 1651 Hobbes had commissioned a hand written, vellum paged copy of his great work as a present for Charles II (whom Hobbes had tutored in mathematics while both he and the King in exile were in Paris during the Cromwell Interregnum).   My little side venture had actually taken a great deal of advance work.  The librarian at Hertford College, Oxford (Hobbes’s college, sort of), recommended me to the Chief Curator of Documents at the British Library, Arnold Hunt, who after several exchanges of emails agreed that I could take a look at the book.  So in I went to London, admonished by a number of friends and family to avoid red phone kiosks as I crossed once more the same busy streets as on the day, a month before, of my cerebral encounter with the Leviathan of all phone boxes.

Arnold Hunt was so gracious.  The Presentation Copy of Leviathan is his favorite book in all the rare documents section of the British Library.  He literally handled it with kid gloves.  He let me see the places where Hobbes in his own hand had made a marginal note for the King, and in another place had struck through something he didn’t want the King to read.  Since Bush and Cheney and the hunt for Heffalumps and WMDs, the new word is “redacted” which I’m sure Hobbes would have neither used nor understood.  As I write this, there is a great political brouhaha going on about fraudulent expense reports of members of the British Parliament, and a “redacted copy” of MP’s expense reports.  It is still a stupid use of the word.

I will always wonder if Charles II read his old teacher’s magnum opus.  There is no record of where the old book was for over 100 years following Charles II’s death in 1685.  It turned up in a private collection in the 19th Century and was thence acquired by the British Library.  But more significant to this little tale of mine is the infatuation of Thomas Hobbes with mathematics, particularly geometry, and all the trouble he got into in trying to solve a difficult theorem, The Squaring of the Circle. Frankly, Hobbes was not much of a mathematician, though he did tutor the King in exile in maths, and probably thereby saved his own life.  A story we shall not go into (I know the reader is thankful) here.

My day in London ended with Linda (who already had seen the play three times before!) and I going to see Arcadia at The Duke of York Theatre in the West End.  And here is the amazing twist.  Arcadia is a story within a story enacted as a play.  It is also about chaos theory and patterns of coincidence and how time is of one piece, past and present woven in a single fabric of reality.  I cannot begin to do the play justice in this short essay.  So I’ll focus on only one or two small threads of the whole intricately woven fabric.  Stoppard has set his play within a mansion in rural England (Sidley Park), in a single grand room that looks out upon a large landscaped garden behind the great house.  Within this space two different times – the early 19th Century and the present — exist in tandem.  One is within the Newtonian world of mechanical objectivity; the other in a Quantum world, relative to its core.  Two extended families of characters move in and out of the room and garden beyond.  Lord Byron (a house guest who never appears) haunts both past and present.

Arcadia Playbill

Arcadia Playbill

Thomasina Coverly is a young girl (13 in Act One to17 in Act Two) who is a wonder of imagination and curiosity.   She is also, with her tutor Septimus Hodge, working on Fermat’s Last Theorem (i.e., there is no solution for “a” to the “n” plus “b” to the “n” equals “c” to the “n”,  where “a, b, and c” are whole numbers, for powers of “n” greater than 2).

The theorem is named for Pierre de Fermat, who was in the circle of mathematicians, scientists and philosophers (The so called Mersenne Circle or Salon) with whom Thomas Hobbes frequented during his exile in Paris (1641 to 1652).  Indeed, in Hobbes’s famous intellectual war with Rene Descartes and John Wallis, Fermat may have played a critical role in supporting Hobbes.  Hobbes, as noted above, was engaged in solving another mathematical quandary, the squaring of a circle, and made a mess of the proof, giving both Descartes and Wallis plenty of ammunition to attack not just his mathematics, but his creditability as a philosopher.

In Soppard’s play Thomasina Coverly did not solve Fermat’s last theorem, but like the wonderful French mathematician, Madame Sophie Germain (1776 to 1831, the same time period as the life of the fictional, Thomasina Coverly) provided a critical link in the chain of proof which would lead in 1995 to English mathematician Andrew Wiles solving the ancient riddle.  (I.e., in the infinity of all numbers, there is no solution to the equation above the power of two.)  In Arcadia Soppard implies that Thomasina made a similar advance to that of Germain in the quest for solving the most famous math problem of all time.

Arcadia also touched my own academic research in a second aspect.  One of the fascinating questions in the play is whether the poet Byron, while a guest in the Coverly mansion in 1809, murdered one of the other guests.   There has been much speculation over the years as to why Lord Byron so abruptly left England for Greece in 1809.  In the play, an overly enthusiastic academic, Professor Bernard Nightingale, while visiting Sidley Park in the 21st Century discovers fragmentary evidence that the reason for Byron’s hasty exit was to escape prosecution for murder by dueling.  In full academic zeal, Professor Nightingale, leaps to this astounding conclusion, only to be proven wrong and publically humiliated.

While I am working on nothing so dramatic as a murder mystery involving one of my favorite poets, I would really like to prove that Pierre de Fermat and Thomas Hobbes actually met and perhaps even were friends during Hobbes’s Paris years.  It would make the coincidence of the play and my visit to the British Library tie together so wonderfully!  Loving coincidence as I do, the temptation to jump to conclusions lurks.

I know these things: Hobbes and Pierre de Fermat were both part of Father Marin Mersenne’s Paris Circle; Samuel Fermat (Pierre’s son) visited Hobbes in London in 1657 and corresponded with Hobbes (Letter 127, Correspondence, Noel Malcolm); Pierre Gassendi, also a member of Mersenne’s Circle, was a close friend of Pierre de Fermat and a also close friend or at least associate of Hobbes during the Paris exile (Gassendi for instance, defended Hobbes against both Descartes and Wallis); the Mersenne Circle met weekly for a number of years.  How could they not have met?  Enough evidence, do you think, to state that Pierre de Fermat and Thomas Hobbes knew each other and had actually met, thus completing the serendipitous circle of this essay?

I will probably never have such fun as this again.  The sabbatical snake has eaten its own tail and is vanishing into itself.  I am sad to see it gone.  But . . . life is more than a coincidence; it is a miracle.  Some call the coincidence God.  Some don’t.  I’m on sabbatical.  Hobbes was agnostic.

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4 Responses to “The Serendipitous Patterns of Narrative Ethics”


  1. 1 leviathanindex June 24, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    😉 ..all i can do is smile… love it.

  2. 2 Scottie June 24, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    I want to see the plays, read the books by Coetzee, and go on sabbatical someday too! 🙂 Can’t wait for you to be home.

  3. 3 Terrell June 25, 2009 at 4:51 am

    So loved this blog. Serendipity….and synchronicity…so beautifully written!
    Your favorite sister loves you!

  4. 4 leviathanindex July 8, 2009 at 8:10 pm

    You’re the best fan a guy could have!


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