The Philosopher's Apprenticeby James Morrow
A brilliant philosopher with a talent for self-destruction, Mason Ambrose gratefully accepts an offer no starving ethicist could refuse. He must travel to a private tropical island and tutor Londa Sabacthani, a beautiful, brilliant adolescent who has lost both her memory and her moral sense in a freak accident. Londa's soul is an empty vessel—and Mason's job
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A brilliant philosopher with a talent for self-destruction, Mason Ambrose gratefully accepts an offer no starving ethicist could refuse. He must travel to a private tropical island and tutor Londa Sabacthani, a beautiful, brilliant adolescent who has lost both her memory and her moral sense in a freak accident. Londa's soul is an empty vessel—and Mason's job will be to fill it.
But all is not as it seems on Isla de Sangre. Londa's reclusive mother is secretly sheltering a second child whose conscience is a blank slate. Even as the mystery deepens, Mason confronts a frightening question: What will happen when Londa, her head crammed with lofty ideals and her bank account filled to bursting, ventures out to remake our fallen world in her own image?
The New York Times
Aristotle is referred to so often in this brilliant comedy of manners as to seem to be alive. Also present are Plato, Lawrence Kohlberg, Kant, Sartre, Heidegger, Gadamer, Rawls, Piaget, Captain Kangaroo, and Mister Rogers. How can a novel so loaded with ideas be so funny and consistently engrossing? Missing in this hilarious send-off on Pygmalion are Rousseau and Locke, although it could be argued that the book is an extended riff on their ideas about how we acquire our moral sense. The premise is not new: a philosopher-tutor is given the opportunity to impress ethical ideas on a first-class mind that is, in matters of morality, a blank slate. But Morrow (The Last Witchfinder ) is an inventive writer possessing a fine comic sensibility; the story is infused with wit and brio. And that brings one more name into the mix-Diderot. Morrow may not mention Diderot, but in many ways Morrow is a successor to that finest of Enlightenment thinkers, a man who believed that literature and philosophy marched hand in hand and who was not afraid to discuss serious matters in a comic tone. Enthusiastically recommended for all libraries.-David Keymer, Modesto, CACopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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The Philosopher's Apprentice
By James Morrow HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
This begins with a butterfly. The insect in question, a monarch, was flitting along a strand of morning glories threaded through the chain-link fence outside my first-floor apartment, systematically dipping its proboscis into the powder-blue cones. It was a warm, fecund morning in August, and I was twenty-seven years old. Contemplating the Danaus plexippus through a gash in my screen door, I was utterly mesmerized, transfixed by the creature's ethereal antennae and magnificent orange wings limned with black stripes as bold and stark as the leading in a stained-glass window. How numinous it must have appeared to a lesser insect: a cricket's epiphany.
Inevitably Lao-tzu's famous riddle crossed my mind—"Am I a man dreaming he is a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he is a man?"—and I performed a thought experiment, mentally trading places with the monarch. I don't know whether the butterfly enjoyed being an impoverished philosophy student with a particular interest in ethics, but my lepidopterous condition delighted me. The sun warmed my wings, the nectar sated my hunger, and the perfume gratified my olfactory organs, located in, of all places, my feet.
The telephone rang: a representative from my bank, recommending that I go further into debt. I slammed down the receiver and attempted to reenter my Taoist reverie, but it had evaporated. No matter. The butterfly had served itspurpose. Thanks to that fragile creature, I'd finally acquired the hook on which to hang my doctoral dissertation. Mason Ambrose, embryonic ethicist, would write about the imperatives entailed in humankind's connection to Danaus plexippus, and to insects in general, and to everything else in the world boasting wings, legs, tentacles, talons, tusks, claws, scales, feathers, fins, fur, or flesh. With a rush of joy, I realized that this Darwinist stance would appeal neither to secular Marxists, for whom moral lessons lay exclusively within history's brute curriculum, nor to evangelical Christians, for whom a naturalist ethics was a contradiction in terms, nor to middle-class mystics, who detested any argument smacking of biological determinism. A philosophical position that could simultaneously antagonize the collectivist left, the God-besotted right, and the Aquarian fringe must, I decided, have a lot going for it.
"I've even thought of a title," I told my long-suffering adviser, Tracy Blasko, as we shared a pitcher of sangria in the Pettifog Café that afternoon.
"That's half the battle," Tracy said. In recent months she'd begun to despair that I would ever find what she called, not unfairly, "a topic sufficiently pretentious to hold your interest during the writing phase."
"I want to call it Toward a Materialist Deontology," I said.
"Sounds like a goddamn doctoral dissertation," Tracy said, unsheathing her wickedest grin. She had a round, melodic face whose softness belied her gristly intellect. When the renowned deconstructionist Benoit Tourneur had visited our campus earlier that year, Tracy alone had summoned the gumption to dismantle, publicly and definitively, his ingenious apologia for Heidegger's Nazi affiliations. "But whatever you call it," she added, looking me in the eye, "the topic is eminently worth wrestling to the ground."
"Will the committee agree?" I said, all aglow.
She nodded. "I'll call in a few favors. Congratulations, Mason. You've cracked the first nut—the fruitcake can't be far behind. Shall we order another pitcher?"
"Love to, but I'm late for a class." I rose abruptly, kissed her on each cheek, and explained that in prelude to my Darwinian explorations I was auditing Ben Glockman's legendary Biology 412: Monkey Business: Sexuoeconomic Transactions in African Primate Communities.
"One more thing," Tracy said as I started out of the café. "You should call it Ethics from the Earth."
For the next two years, I taught English at Watertown High School by day and wrote Ethics from the Earth by night, laboring to convert my status at Hawthorne University from ABD—which at most schools stood for "all but dissertation," though Tracy preferred "Aristotle be damned"—to genuine doctor of philosophy, and so it was that, raisin by raisin, currant by currant, the fruitcake took form, until 382 manuscript pages lay in my hard drive. And then disaster struck.
Tracy Blasko, dear Tracy who was half in love with me and I with her, poor Tracy went to pieces, checking herself into the Boston Psychiatric Center for clinical depression and alcoholism. The task of shepherding me through the final revisions fell to the innocuous Carol Eberling, a glum Hegelian who boasted none of Tracy's acid humor or affection for audacity. But for me the real catastrophe—and I'm afraid this is how graduate students construct these matters—was that the person selected to round out my committee was certain to cause me trouble. The nemesis in question was the celebrated postrationalist theologian Felix Pielmeister, newly arrived from Notre Dame.
There are certain coordinates on this planet, spatial and temporal, where one is well advised to avoid antagonizing the locals. The Lower East Side of Manhattan at three o'clock in the morning, for example, or Fenway Park during the bottom of the ninth with the Sox trailing the Yankees by seven runs, or the philosophy department of a major university any day of the week. I never found out how Felix Pielmeister came to visit my Web site. This scholar who'd delivered the Gifford Lectures, published eighteen books, and routinely communed with St. Augustine's shade—why would such a man waste his time picking through the dregs and dross of cyberspace? I suppose he went slumming one day, ordering his search engine to display all notices of his newest book, an anti-Darwinist screed called The Algorithms of Immortality, and suddenly, voilà: the blistering review I'd composed to amuse myself during the gestation of Ethics from the Earth.
It was Dr. Eberling who alerted me to Pielmeister's displeasure. "He's livid, you know," she said. "Really, Mason, you ought to send him an apology."
"I will not eat crow," I replied. "Nor any other bird Pielmeister would put on my platter."
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James Morrow is the author of nine previous novels, including The Last Witchfinder. He lives in State College, Pennsylvania.
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A Philosophy PH.D candidate withdraws his application after losing a heated argument re his dissertation the only thing left for him to obtain his doctorate. Mason Ambrose accepts work tutoring seventeen year old Londa Sabacthani, who suffered a severe head injury that destroyed her morality. Her brilliant mother molecular geneticist Edwina wants Mason to help her daughter regain what she lost.------------- Mason travels to Edwina¿s home on Ilsa de Sangre of the Florida Keys to work with Londa, who tells him she is an only child. Soon after he arrives Mason finds on the next estate five-year-old Donya living with two tutors trying to help her regain her lost 'rectitude' following a brain injury occurring from a bicycle accident. Donya insists she is an only child whose mother is Edwina. The three tutors share notes and conclude after some other snooping that Edwina is a female Dr. Frankenstein.---------------- This is an excellent satirical look at American ethics re business, science, politics, and the family with seemingly nonsensical actions yet retains its feasibility. This is mostly because the solid cast rings genuine especially the kids. For instance Londa takes her new learned ethics to the business community. Fans who appreciate something different but entertainingly well written and thought provoking will want to follow the teaching escapades of THE PHILOSOPHER'S APPRENTICE.------------ Harriet Klausner
Adding a touch of sci-fi humor to a range of contemporary issues (third-wave feminism, genetic engineering, corporatism, theocracy) The Philosopher's Apprentice manages to be at once thought-provoking and entertaining. The pace of this book is fast--a little too fast at times. Morrow's writing kept me engaged and amused, but often wondering why relationships between some characters weren't explored in more depth.