In the Hole with Brian Lee McMahon

November 14, 2017 | By Andrew Wice

Alumnus Brian Lee McMahon (SF) is water operator for the village of Madrid, New Mexico.

When Santa Fe alumnus Brian Lee McMahon puts theory into practice, an entire town’s water supply is at stake. In his earthy expression, the place where education meets action is “in the hole.”

In his capacity as water operator for the village of Madrid, New Mexico, McMahon faces unique challenges. His home since 1985, Madrid is a resurrected ghost town that has chosen to remain unincorporated. Therefore, it has no government, no tax revenue –not even a post office.

Problems resulting from its threadbare infrastructure are compounded by predicaments of water quality and quantity. He must know what to do, with which underground valve, before he begins. Solving the crisis often requires that McMahon must quite literally go into a hole, in pursuit of praxis.

It was at St. John’s College in Santa Fe where he encountered Aristotle’s conception of praxis, which is the practical application of theory. He began to recognize that “there’s a feedback loop between your lived experiences of practice and the theories that accumulate, and there’s a dialogue between theory and practice.”

Sometimes, results are best achieved by embracing an innovative technology, such as the 4G network McMahon has installed to monitor the desert town’s most critical resource. And sometimes, it is wisest to rely on ancient verities: knowledge only has value if it leads to action; action can only be right if it is founded upon knowledge.

McMahon credits St. John’s College with providing the dialectical toolbox with which he has continued his critical contemplation of truth and meaning.

“I went to St. John’s to figure out what went wrong with Western civilization,” he says. “I went to St. John’s young. So for me, it was a place to get older, a four-year inoculation of knowledge that has to unfold over time.”

A lifelong practitioner of martial arts, McMahon seeks the complementary wisdom of Eastern and Western thought. These philosophies can create a moment of enlightenment which is equally abstract and practical.

“When I’m in a hole in February in ten inches of water, twenty-eight degrees, trying to get some stupid fitting to do something that it doesn’t want to, I ask myself: how did I get here?” he says. “And then I remember my Zen master saying, ‘Ask yourself, who is it who feels this pain?’.”

McMahon also facilitates a community watch within his stubbornly iconoclastic town. It is a cooperative endeavor of mutual protection and respect. A good listener able to encourage multiple stakeholders to find collaborative solutions, he sees his role as similar to a St. John’s tutor, guiding a dialectical inquiry rather than lecturing as a dictator.

“I’m of a psychological makeup that I don’t really want to be a leader, and I don’t want anybody to lead me,” he explains. “And that’s Madrid, too. The idea – this is a Taoist idea – is that you solve problems when they’re little, and then you never have big problems to solve.”

Recently, McMahon delivered a lecture on the Santa Fe campus that explored ideas of praxis alongside questions of virtue. In “Can Virtue Be Taught?”, McMahon asserted an approach that is both classically Aristotelian as well as purely Taoist. He has long believed that virtue cannot be taught, only practiced. First gather knowledge, then put it into action.

“Like it or not, I have to be in the hole some of the time,” he says. “The idea that cleverness gets you out of real work is a problem. The Western world all about that: ‘be clever, don’t get in the middle of it, don’t get in the hole.’ But no, life is in the hole.”