Thinking Life: A Philosophical Fiction, Part 1—Frontmatter and Editor’s Introduction. With a Prefatory Note by Z

Prefatory Note by Z:

In “Philosophy Unbound,” we resolved to publish original works of real philosophy freed from the constraints of professional academic philosophy, come hell or high water.

Our first project flowing from that philosophy unbound resolution is the five-part, four-book series, The Rational Human Condition, which, starting on 3 July 2017, is being published by us here and on Medium, section-by-section, in weekly installments appearing on successive Mondays. The first installment of that is here.

Now here is the second project flowing from that same resolution, Thinking Life: A Philosophical Fiction, which, starting on 28 July 2017, will also be published by us here and on Medium, in fourteen weekly installments appearing on successive Fridays.

Its author is Mark Anderson, who is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Belmont University in Nashville, TN.

In both cases of The Rational Human Condition and Thinking Life, we’ve updated the 19th century mode of serializing novels and other literary works in hard copy, to works of real philosophy and the free-access internet.

Thinking Life will be of authentic, serious interest to all those who believe that real philosophy in general, and more specifically Plato and Nietzsche, are still worth thinking about, and simultaneously to all those who are either overtly or secretly APP.

After we’ve published all of Thinking Life, it will be deleted and later appear in paperback.


THINKING LIFE: A PHILOSOPHICAL FICTION

BY MARK ANDERSON

FRONTMATTER

Table of Contents

Editor’s Introduction                                                                                                        

1. On the Decline of Our Educational Institutions             

2. We Scholars                         

3. Divine Madness                          

4. Hard Fate and Black Bile

5. The Wanderer and His Shadow

6. The Art of Philosophy

Epilogue

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The Next Installment

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EDITOR’S INTRODUCTION

In the body of a previous book (The Thinker-Artist) I included Professor Thomas Blair’s narrative of the life and work of the late philosopher Michael Tommasi. The bulk of Blair’s account consists of a precis of a chapter excerpted from Dr. Henry Holet’s Obscure Thinkers Out of their Times (1951), and the remainder derives from Blair’s original research. Initially the professor intended this piece to serve as the preface to his Sophia and Philosophia, a book which he eventually abandoned for reasons I recount in The Thinker-Artist. In any case, through my study of Thomas Blair I was attracted also to the enigmatic Michael Tommasi, and I have since continued Blair’s research into Tommasi’s intellectual biography. My initial efforts uncovered only a few stray scraps of new material, but recently I chanced upon a cache of documents which must be of momentous consequence for those few scholars engaged in Tommasi studies.

To make progress in this field is not easy. To make an authentic and significant discovery is nearly impossible. Tommasi was born January 3, 1889, in Torino, and he passed his youth in Italy through his graduation from the University of Urbino. He then moved with his parents to England, where he earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Cambridge University in 1915. Later he passed a decade dwelling in monastic seclusion in Greece, specifically in Mystra, near Sparta. Later still he returned to England, and after a decade there spent mostly in isolation, he died in Cambridge in 1946. Tommasi’s frequent relocations, and his predilection for solitude, make it difficult to track reliable details of his life and literary estate. Indeed, some of the works he is known to have produced are lost, either vanished altogether and forever, or secreted away in private collections. Other works mentioned in the literature may well amount to nothing more than rumors. And given Tommasi’s hermetic habits, it is possible that writings by his hand exist which no one besides his closest friends or family ever heard of.

This brings me to my discovery. I should note to begin that my wife Francesca is Italian by birth. She hails from the Montefeltro region, province of Pesaro-Urbino, and like Tommasi she attended the University of Urbino (many years later, of course). Her family still resides in the small town of Mercatino Conca, an hour by car north of Urbino. We visit them every summer. Thus it happened that in June of 2016, while we were staying with her parents, my wife suggested we take an overnight trip to Urbino, which besides being the site of many fond memories of her early adulthood, is of interest also for having been an active center of intellectual life during the Renaissance, for there was the residence of the humanist duke, Federico III da Montefeltro, and the birthplace and childhood home of Raphael.

We made the trip to the hilltop town early on a Friday morning, navigating the winding roads in the family’s Cinquecento. Then, after relaxing over cappuccinos and croissants in the bar of our hotel, we toured the university and the ducal palace. After a late lunch we visited an old bookstore—famed in fact as the oldest in the region—and while there we struck up a conversation with the proprietor of the place, an amiable old retired professor whose family had founded the shop early in the nineteenth century. When in the course of our discussion I asked the man whether by chance he owned any works by or about Michael Tommasi, a look of excited surprise spread over his face. He rarely encountered anyone who knew that name, he said, and never before had a visiting American mentioned the man. He himself knew little about Tommasi beyond the fact that he had once been famous in certain intellectual and artistic circles as an “eccentric philosopher-poet.” He was however delighted by my own intimate knowledge of Tommasi’s life, and at the conclusion of our talk he invited me and Francesca to dinner at his home later that evening.

Umberto’s apartment was located on the edge of the old town under the lee of the city wall, on the far end of a cramped section of labyrinthine lanes, but we located the place without much trouble by appealing to locals for assistance along the way. We arrived to find our host awaiting us on his terrazzo, and after an exchange of greetings he ushered us inside. His home was in the traditional style of pale brick, plaster, and rough wood beams, with the idiosyncratic touch that every room was elegantly cluttered with paintings, curios, papers, and books. Umberto regaled us with stories about his various collections, which were so extensive an hour’s tour hardly sufficed for a superficial survey. When later we sat down to eat we spoke of various subjects over the pasta, but with the second course we turned to discussing Michael Tommasi. We spoke of Tommasi’s life and work through the rest of the meal, and we maintained the theme while lingering over coffee and drinks afterward. Umberto was visibly fascinated by the information I shared with him, and he grew increasingly animated as the hours passed. Finally, near the end of the evening, after tossing back the last of his wine, he stood up and announced that he had recently acquired a collection from an old Urbino family which included material he believed would interest me. Then he left the room and descended into the basement. When he returned a few minutes later he carried a weathered old wooden crate marked in charcoal on one side with a single word, “Tommasi.” I sat up in my seat, staring at my wife, and when Umberto placed the crate on the floor beside me and removed the burlap covering, and I saw inside a hoard of madly disordered material, I could hardly believe my eyes. I had no idea what I was looking at, but I understood immediately that if there should be among the papers any work at all by Tommasi’s own hand, this would be the find of my life.

To my surprise—indeed I was shocked—Umberto offered to give me the materials to keep, asking only for my word that I would deal respectfully with any document of value I should happen to find. I was happy to give him my pledge, which I did while shaking his hand. Not long after this we left, and by taking turns with the load Francesca and I carried the crate back through town to our hotel. Immediately upon returning to her parents’ home the following morning, I sorted through the contents of the crate sprawled out on the kitchen floor. Inside I discovered among numerous documents relating to Tommasi written by others, a large collection of material indisputably produced by the man himself. I believe in fact that several small leather-bound volumes, which were stacked in the bottom of the crate, are the journals on which Dr. Holet relied for much of his account of Tommasi’s life, and which Prof. Blair complained of being unable to locate. I have not yet studied these closely, however, for I have concentrated my attention on a short manuscript, hand-written, revised throughout, and signed on the final page by Tommasi himself. It seems that neither Dr. Holet nor Prof. Blair knew anything about this work, nor is it mentioned specifically in any of the other relevant literature. But that it is authentically Tommasi’s work cannot be doubted by anyone familiar with his handwriting.

Since the reader will soon encounter the work directly for himself (or herself, as the case may be), I say no more about it here than to summarize it as the intellectual-existential autobiography of Tommasi’s imagined narrator, a university professor of philosophy, as recollected through the prism of his engagement with a “philosopher-artist” whom he befriends while on a convalescent summer sojourn in a high Swiss mountain valley.

But before turning the reader over to Tommasi himself, I should address the date of his manuscript’s composition. Considering the substance and style of the work, Tommasi might well have conceived it not long after completing his doctoral thesis, for at that time he aimed to practice philosophy as (and here I cite Blair’s precis of Holet’s work, which includes quotations from Tommasi himself) “an ‘experimental artistic endeavor’ closely related to ‘the forces of inspiration productive of poetry (of poetry as poetry or as novel),’ as Dostoevsky had ‘so masterfully conceived the novel as itself a mode of philosophy.’” That Tommasi has written on the first page of the manuscript, apparently by way of a subtitle, “A Philosophical Fiction,” illustrates this conception of philosophy as an artistic endeavor intimately related to poetry.

Against an early dating of the piece is the narrator’s position as a university professor, for it is at least questionable whether Tommasi would have imagined himself as such a character, having only just received his doctorate. Yet this objection is not decisive, for Tommasi’s father was a professional academic, Tommasi himself was close with several of his Cambridge professors, and even in his earliest period he reflected on the philosopher’s role in culture and the proper place of the love of wisdom in the philosopher’s life, including his life as a scholar and academic. It is not therefore unthinkable that the manuscript is early after all.

If the manuscript is in fact early, we might yet want to date it to a late phase of Tommasi’s early period, say as close to 1919 or the spring of 1920 as possible, for references in the text to a recently concluded war suggest that Tommasi wrote with the aftermath of the First World War in mind.

The above considerations notwithstanding, however, the manuscript could well derive from Tommasi’s middle period at Mystra, at which time he explored an experimentally Platonic way of thinking while yet infusing his ideas and prose with (to cite Blair again) “a Nietzschean mood.” The “philosopher-artist” befriended by Tommasi’s narrator is evidently modeled on Nietzsche, but a Nietzsche who is less an anti- or inverted-Platonist than one who, distinguishing Plato the individual from the tradition of Platonism, welcomes the influence of the creative thinker and writer while rejecting the dogmatic system. Thus there is a sense in which the work is infused throughout with a dual Platonic-Nietzschean spirit, a taut harmony fashioned from conceptual and existential oppositions and agreements. In any case, if Tommasi did indeed produce the work during his stay in Mystra, we should date the text to the middle of the 1920s.

During Tommasi’s final years in Cambridge, when he intentionally adopted “a non-academic style (of writing as well as of thinking),” his work was sufficiently experimental—from the perspective of traditional academic philosophy—that one can easily imagine him producing the manuscript during this period too. Professor Blair cites reports dating from this time that Tommasi was at work on a “vast poetic manuscript,” which to this day has not been identified. I cannot rule out the possibility that he excerpted the work at issue here from this longer piece and later revised it to stand alone. If this is so, then we should probably date the manuscript to an early phase of this period, for there are no intimations in the text that a new military conflict is imminent.

The problem of dating is exacerbated by the fact that Tommasi seems intentionally to have obscured the internal chronology. The war to which the narrator refers is not obviously the First World War, yet social and cultural realities referenced in the text suggest a period between the two World Wars.

Uncannier still than this chronological eccentricity is the fact that the narrator’s meetings and conversations with his friend in the mountains appear to take place in the nineteenth century, when the narrator would either not yet have been born, or would have been but an infant. When in the mountains, it seems, he is out of time.

Nor is the temporal element the only problematic feature of the text. The action obviously takes place in Europe, but the specific location of the narrator’s university is unclear, and in fact his account of the institution has much in common with contemporary university life in America. This is not altogether a surprise, however, for Tommasi had an abiding concern with intellectual and cultural trends in the States, which he regarded as precursors to (indeed as primary causes of) events to come in Europe, and he maintained correspondence with peers in American universities. Surprising or not, however, this aspect of the text contributes to a dreamlike atmosphere which merges a concreteness of detail with a free-floating sort of historical displacement.

In sum, then, we may with relative confidence state that Tommasi produced the text sometime between 1919 and 1925-30. The narrative present of the work seems to be set in the later part of this period; the immediate narrative past appears to be early in the 1920s; and the prior encounters with his friend in the mountain valley are set as impossibly early as the 1880s.

I myself have formed no definite opinion as to when Tommasi composed the text, though I do suspect a date near the later end of the span noted in the previous paragraph. It may be that his journals or other documents included in the Urbino papers provide the solution to the riddle, but since I have not yet had the time to sort and scrutinize the relevant material, for now I leave the matter unresolved.

One last word about Tommasi’s manuscript. It is written alternatingly in English and Italian, for although the narrator speaks and writes in English, his friend communicates exclusively in Italian. Tommasi himself was fluent in both languages from the days of his earliest childhood, his mother having been born and raised in London, his father in a small town in the southern Italian region of Puglia. Given these linguistic specificities, it is possible to read the manuscript as a narrative in which, and through which, Tommasi talks to himself about himself, or, more specifically, as a dialogue between different aspects of Tommasi’s philosophical personality. A spiritual autobiography, if you will, told by the author to himself for the purpose of self-exploration, expansion, and ascent.

That the biographical element of Tommasi’s work may have for the reader an intellectual import beyond the mere satisfaction of a prying curiosity should not be doubted. It is true that many of those who document the lives of thinkers and artists are motivated by a perverse reductivist compulsion; they aim to track an idea or a style back to a particular personal event, and thereby to “explain” the work by the life. The basest of such men aspire to demystify the work, to drain the art, and the artist, of any trace of apparent magic, or genius. I myself am no such leveler or debunker. For me the value in studying the lives of thinkers and artists resides in the consequent insight into their manner of becoming who they are, or were, insight one may incorporate into one’s own life. Not by direct imitation, of course, for every man is an individual, and his habits of thought and action are particular, and particularly suitable, to himself alone. Yet one may well adapt for personal use the lessons learned from the lives of others. After all, the genuine student of philosophy aims for something more than scholarly knowledge of others’ wisdom; he longs to attain to wisdom himself. Therefore I say he would do well to study the lives of admired philosophers, for in doing so he may learn to become a philosopher too. With this thought in mind, then, I suggest that the reader approach the biographical element of Tommasi’s work as being of equal value with its more obvious intellectual and creative merits.

But to return to the linguistic eccentricities of Tommasi’s manuscript, I have translated the Italian passages to render the work in English throughout, though I have retained the occasional Italian phrase to remind readers of the linguistic idiosyncrasies of Tommasi’s original.

And while on this subject of language, I should note that Tommasi wrote the title, “Thinking Life,” in English on the first page. I read a triple entendre in the expression, which would not come through in the corresponding Italian formulation. Therefore I assume that Tommasi intended the multiple ambiguities.

Finally, I have incorporated Tommasi’s own revisions into the final manuscript, but also, whenever I have deemed it necessary, I have taken it upon myself to correct mistakes and revise for clarity. I have also supplied the chapter titles. Apart from these and other such editorial necessities, however, I have made every effort to keep myself out of the work altogether. Michael Tommasi was more than capable of speaking for himself, and although he addressed the public only infrequently, his words were always well chosen, his ideas as stimulating as imaginative. It is my pleasure, and my honor, to provide him with the opportunity to speak once again. Therefore I now present to you the heretofore unpublished work,

Thinking Life: A Philosophical Fiction

by Michael Tommasi

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The Next Installment

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Against Professional Philosophy is a sub-project of the online mega-project Philosophy Without Borders, which is home-based on Patreon here.