In my little corner of Northern Virginia, blackberries are beginning to come into season. This is not a useful post where I tell you where the good spots to pick them are located. I don’t write those kind of posts; plus, I want the berries all to myself.
Not just because they are tasty, though that is the foundation of it all. If blackberries did not taste good, I would not be writing this. For example, I don’t write posts about tomatoes, do I? No, because they are nasty. This applies above all to the beautiful, large, sun-ripened tomatoes from your garden. Those are real tomatoes, the pinnacle of what tomatoes should be. Meaning that they taste more like tomatoes, and that is a sickening taste. You may disagree, I realize–yet that is exactly the point: some people like tomatoes, some don’t. But when have you ever heard anyone impugn the taste of blackberries in general? Never, because it does not happen. That is like saying that you don’t like music or blue skies.
Plus, consider how much more thought-provoking blackberries are than tomatoes. You don’t have to wonder where your tomatoes plants are. They are either right where you planted them, or right where your neighbor planted them (you dirty thief), or else nowhere, because they are far too snobby of a plant to grow wild, unlike the humble blackberry.
But blackberries constantly mentally challenge you: although you know the general kinds of areas where they grow–along the edges of wooded areas, or in clearings in forests–you never know precisely where the good patches are. They move, you see. Your best spot for picking blackberries last year could turn out to be a terrific dud this year. Nor does the mental challenge cease once you locate a patch. Now you have to consider other factors. Where is the poison ivy that you need to avoid? How can you get to the plump berries in the back without being destroyed by thorns? Are you in an area where snakes are a possibility? Far from ruining your experience, these challenges are actually what make picking blackberries so pleasant–as Aristotle told us long ago, pleasure is linked to unimpeded activity. Since your mind is kept so very active while picking blackberries, you experience pleasure–provided that you aren’t a weirdo, of course.
This is just not the case when you pick a tomato. Here is the phenomenology of tomato picking: You look at the plant. If the tomato is red, you pick it. The end. Boring, unpleasant. Oh, wait, I forgot the last step: After picking the tomato, you look up and feel ashamed as you see me returning manfully from my blackberry picking excursion with blood running down my arms and legs and a large devil-may-care grin on my face.
And even in terms of teaching philosophy, blackberries are wildly useful. For example, they are one of the best illustrations possible for John Locke’s theory in the Second Treatise of Government that prior to political societies–and in some cases even in areas held in common within political societies–it is your labor that makes something your private property.
This lesson be imparted the boring way, by just asking the students in class what gives people the right to the blackberries they pick.
Or one can teach the lesson the better way, which is to have the students pile in vans for a field trip to a blackberry patch. After a long and fun time picking blackberries, the professor should have the students sit down in a circle with their berries. At this point, the professor should take a large five-gallon white bucket out of the back of one of the van. If the professor wishes, he may also hastily scrawl “Dr. Tenured’s Blackberries” on the bucket with a Sharpie. The professor should then proceed to walk around and cheerfully ask the students to dump their berries into this large bucket. Although the label on the bucket may give the students some misgivings, they tend to be a trusting lot, so they will dump the blackberries in, imagining that the professor is going to wash them, or that something good will come of this somehow. Then the professor is to sit down with the students, and begin gorging himself on the blackberries. Indeed, he should even take gobs of the berries out of the bucket and proceed to smear them on his arms and legs, remarking that this will “repel the mosquitos,” and perhaps also dump out some berries and roll around on them, making cracks about the stains on his clothing resembling modern art.
At this point reactions may vary. Some students will probably begin to cry. Other students will be unsure how to express their feelings appropriately, so fistfights may break out. When someone finally works up the courage to challenge the professor, he is to ask in complete naïveté why the blackberries are not his to do with as he wishes. At this point, some student will, in a triumphant moment of Platonic education, reach down deep inside his soul and come up with the appropriate answer: “Because we picked them.” The professor should praise this answer, and use it as the springboard into Locke’s account of labor and private property. The use of a fancy electronic Smartboard, also removed from the back of the van, will assist the students in taking good notes.
Not that I have ever done that, mind you. It just seems like a great plan.
But to return to the point at issue: what could a teacher possible use tomatoes to illustrate? The only thing that pops readily to mind is the forbidden fruit from the Book of Genesis. But that would no longer be Philosophy class.
Despite all this negativity, I actually do not want to discourage you from eating tomatoes, at least if you are one of the people in the world who can eat them without feeling the immediate urge to retch. Tomatoes, like blackberries, have known health benefits; even I must grant that they are what Plato calls a “burdensome good” in the Republic, something unpleasant in itself, but “good” in light of some attractive result–like doing pushups or paying taxes or cleaning up dog poo.
No, the key lesson here is that even if tomatoes have some modest value, blackberries certainly aren’t this lowest kind of good thing. Rather, they the kind of good thing that is both good in itself, and has good results. They are, in a word, excellent. And at least for the next month, this excellence will not cost $5-6 dollars for a sad little container. The only cost will be your own effort. And what will they taste like? Like sunshine and heroism. They may also be a little tart, but that is what vanilla ice cream is for.