APP Editors’ Prefatory Note:
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.
The second project flowing from that same resolution is Thinking Life: A Philosophical Fiction, which, starting on 28 July 2017, is hereby being published by us on APP 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
TABLE OF CONTENTS
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
CHAPTER 5. THE WANDERER AND HIS SHADOW
Please accept my apologies for having taken so long to reply to your stimulating pair of letters. I have been unwell. My father’s death affected me more profoundly than I had realized. The black bile roiled in me and swelled to such a turbulent depth that it overthrew the balance of my humors. Oh, melancholia! For days I drifted in darkness, my head and heart a static of gloomy confusion. But as the academic year was fast approaching, I tried despite my condition to prepare my lectures and to continue work on my present research projects. This was anything but prudent! I suffered an attack in the head of such strange proportions as I have never before experienced. I lay supine in a lifeless swoon for a week. Pain was less the problem than an unrelenting state of oneiric semi-consciousness. At times I felt as if my body had collapsed into a paralysis of hibernation. Yet my mind was wildly active, and I was as it were submerged within a dream, a kaleidoscopic whirl of hallucinatory thoughtfulness through which my dream-life seeped into my thinking-life. In my haze I actually visualized the spiritual influence flowing as liquid smoke from the center of my sternum into my head.
And the doctors could find nothing physically wrong with me! Can you imagine? I awoke intermittently to hear them express their befuddlement to my landlord. (I have no precise idea how often they attended to me.) There was nothing the matter with me, they said. Nothing anyway their instruments could detect. Yet there I lay, quite obviously incapacitated. Of course they could not peer into my skull, but had their science provided them access to the interior of my mind, they would have seen my reason on fire, scorching itself and burning out. Or perhaps I should say, burning down the boundary between my intellect and imagination; burning down contemporary assumptions and perspectives; burning down all things timely and “sane.” I recited verse in impossible meters on fantastic philosophical themes. I sang. I laughed. I gave voice to the madness that seduced me. All this only in my head, you understand.
Shall I speculate that perhaps I descended into the underworld? But that would be outrageous. Let’s say then that I lost myself in the labyrinth of the cave in the mind.
Strange to say, I emerged from this experience feeling better than I have of late, also with the sense of having attained a sort of insight. At the moment however my thoughts are but shadows of your own way of thinking, not yet integrated into the complex of my mind and mood. My hope is that through writing I will make of them my own possession.
So. If you are right about truth and knowledge, if we agree that there is no truth, or at least that truth need not be our chief concern, nor knowledge our highest value, then we need not identify wisdom with knowledge, nor the love of wisdom, philosophy, with the search for truth. And if we reject the Christian imperative of correct belief, and Aristotle’s assumption that the supreme function of intellect is to know, then we might well conclude that you are right. Further, if there is no God, or if the divine is not a jealous enforcer of orthodoxy, and if imagination is as proper to intellect as knowledge, then we may indeed draw that very conclusion. In which case we would be permitted—and maybe even compelled—to conceive of philosophy as a creative activity, and of the philosopher as one who through his artistry invents and explores new patterns of thinking and living. This would be the philosopher as poet and legislator, a type which you have mentioned in reference to Solon and Plato. He dreams the law of the future of man, and thereby he creates the future. His dream is his destiny. The past too: his longing and his will stretch even into the past.
But now I ask myself: Is this really the way things stand? Is this account of wisdom and the love of wisdom correct? More specifically, does it apply to Plato? Or, to put this question another way: Was Plato himself a Platonist? I have been reading the Phaedo lately, moved by your interpretive insights, and I am struck by many details which of course I have noted previously but which I have never before strung together to read as you have done. How the dialogue opens up to reveal at its core Plato as an example of the type you have styled a “thinker-artist”! A Plato not obviously committed to Platonic dogma, who perhaps even means to subvert it!
Socrates in the Phaedo, when discussing the recurring dream which had often urged him to practice mousikê, which in the past he had taken as encouragement to continue practicing philosophy, says that he had recently considered whether it might not want him rather to compose poems. To this he was unaccustomed, he says, for the poet produces mythoi, not logoi, and he is not a teller of myths, a mythologikos. Yet on occasion throughout the work Socrates refers to his ideas as amounting to a mythos, and he prefaces the entire discussion by suggesting that he will mythologein, or relate a myth, about life in the afterworld. As for the arguments, the logoi, which constitute the majority of the work, Socrates himself unsettles them in various ways. The first he introduces by proposing that they diamuthologômen, or recount a myth about, the soul’s immortality, which “myth” turns out to elaborate a palaios logos, or an ancient doctrine, an expression with roots in the mystery cults. Of the second argument, which encompasses much Platonic dogma—from the immortality of the soul to reincarnation and the doctrine that learning is recollection—he says that his logos holds only if Forms exist, but he offers no proof whatever that they do. And following the third argument he admits that many deficiencies, suspicions, and vulnerabilities yet remain. Later he even refers to his logos as a charm sung to frightened children and a noble idea worth the risk of believing. Why not affirm it as a demonstrably true account?!
In short, Plato seems determined to obscure the distinction between the philosopher and the poet which his Socrates insists on. More, as author of the words his characters speak, he as it were compels his Socrates to assert and then neglect the distinction, as if he would pit the old man against himself. (We have discussed his employing a similar tactic with the city-nature contrast at the start of the Phaedrus.) And even if he does not intend altogether to subvert Socrates’ manner of philosophizing, he does at least appear to call attention to himself as a type distinct from his protagonist. He is hinting at a lesson here, no? Encoding a message in the text, his enigmatic indication that he is something other than, more than, an ape of Socrates. The old man was a dry dialectician. Plato is beautiful and young (kalos kai neos), a thinker-artist whose philosophy cannot be untangled from his poetry.
Here I have only repeated facts that you know well, and conclusions which you have arrived at on your own already, I know. But, as I said, my intention is in writing them down to think them through and, perhaps, to incorporate them into my own ideas about these matters.
My ideas, yes, but also my emotions, for I recall your remarks on creativity as an affirmative reaction to suffering. As unwell as I was in my oblivion, I felt somehow relief, and a sort of peace. It was as if an ominous sun had set, a black star, a void that devours light. On its withdrawal a new horizon opened up before me, a new infinite, as it were, suffused with a radiance of liberation, exuberance, cheerfulness. I remember dancing… Not with legs, rather with my spirit… At the time I took this for an experience of approaching death, as one hears from pious aunts of peace descending on the dying, and the immersion of their departing soul in warmth and light. Therefore I dismissed the experience as the play of my subconscious making its sense symbolically of my condition. Yet now I read it as a figurative image of the passing, not of life, but of death, the living-death suffered by those who accept their lives in the form prescribed by the timeliness of their time. The death of the father as the death of God. The death of God as a final release from bonds, intellectual and existential. That is to say, I experienced—if only briefly and through a shifting fog—I experienced the intellectual creativity of a mind set free from every cognitive constraint, thought wandering without limits, and life without negation, a profound mood for which every No! is in itself an affirmation. If I was not the artist of my own thought-world, I was at least the promise of such artistry. Spirit radically unbound. As I write, my whole body shudders and smiles at the thought.
Shall I speak as you have done, then? Shall I say it with you? Indeed I shout it, I sing it, this charm of yours:
Nothing is true! Everything is permitted!
But enough of these scattered thoughts. I mean only to provide some indication of the recent trend of my thinking, if I may call it thinking rather than a dream-vision. And perhaps this is the proper designation, at least until I really think these things, for myself and as myself. As of now I fear I am only repeating sentiments borrowed from you. Yet I am confident that something of this way of thinking is authentically mine, or anyway bound to be so. I sense it moving in me, a spirit of life, new life, expanding through my frame.
Well then, as I say, Enough! With any other correspondent I would worry that this is far too involved a reply to a query into my well-being. But I don’t doubt that you will understand and appreciate it. Besides, I have embedded in this narrative of my illness and recovery my contribution to our ongoing exchange. I await your reply.
In the meantime I continue my convalescence while pondering our investigative explorations. Of course I must also find the time to prepare and teach my classes, complete my latest research-essay, and attend to several pressing administrative matters… Ah, perhaps you are right, my friend, and the professor really does oppress the philosopher!
Charmides, the Younger
I might have written sooner, but I thought to wait until the day on which Ficino with his Florentine Academy used to celebrate Plato’s birthday. Who knows whether the date is grounded on hard fact? It makes no difference to me, my friend! Must we honor the great philosopher-artist as if he were a historian who demanded of his admirers a rigid dedication to concrete actuality? No, of course not! Never! Therefore I begin by offering my lustiest Auguri! to the noble son of Ariston—or of Apollo, as the case may be.
And to you, too, my friend. Tanti auguri di buon compleanno, my dear Charmides! For I read in your most recent letter an account of a rebirth. Therefore I take this opportunity to hymn the virtues of the child, as I once promised I would do. One must take advantage of one’s second childhood. Most are not granted the experience, not anyway in any other than the superficial sense of the leisure years of those who survive to enjoy a dotage unburdened by the tedium of employment. Doubtless this is a state to which we all aspire. But here I mean to address the childhood of the spirit that comes upon those who transcend their youth and maturity alike, their ingenuousness as well as their grave solemnity. You describe your experience as the passing of death and the approach of life, indeed of new life. This strikes me as an appropriate formulation. The dawn of creative intellectuality, free from every cognitive constraint, and the exuberant affirmation of an unbound spirit. Yes, this really is a new life and the childhood of the spirit. Or, as you say, your experience is at least the promise of this gift. It is set before you; now you must reach out and take it.
Youth is a mask that hides the young man from himself. The mask speaks. It says, “I am happy.” Ah, but let us ask the man directly when as an adult he has been deprived of his disguise.
Old age is similarly deceptive. “I was happy,” it says. And the lines across an old man’s face resemble the mask of his youth redrawn from imperfect memory. It appears almost mournful.
Who among us is really happy, my friend? The simple-minded, I suppose. Most of the rest are sorrowful, dispirited, or blandly apathetic. Only the rare ones understand that our object is neither peace nor suffering. We few are after rather the great health. In this condition a man may as readily affirm his every spell of sorrow as disdain his happiness. For in this condition great play and great seriousness are intermingled in such a way as to drive the individual beyond concern with his fleeting emotional states. What are palpitations of the heart, quiverings of the lip, to such a one? Epiphenomena of the body, nothing more. Certainly nothing to distract us from our goal. And what exactly is our goal? The good, the beautiful, the true? Let us say: all of these and none, the difference depending on whether we conceive these categories from the perspective of the free-spirited philosophical artist or the pious metaphysician. Regarding them as so-called “transcendentals,” the man of great health and a free spirit will have no use for them. Not anyway as does the Thomist, for example; not as a true believer. But as an artist he may well admire them; he may even be moved by them. But from a distance, my friend; always from a distance. For he does not permit his “self” to be entangled in such things. He is master of his every Yes and No. Describe him as believing or knowing if you like, but in either case he is actually creating. His will to knowledge is a will to create.
This is what the child does, for this is what he is: a creator. The young and the old are pack animals, donkeys and distended camels, loaded down with the weight of tradition. In a word, they are believers. The child is a forgetting of tradition and a new beginning. Innocent but not naive. Pure but never prudish. He creates his own will, and he wills ever new creations. This is the primary sense in which his creative will is free.
This freedom of the great health is the object of the genuine philosopher’s highest aspiration. Here is the innocence of the man who sports with the pious, the moral, the sacrosanct and the solemn with a skepticism deep but bright. He plays the wicked game with a light touch. He “knows” too much to believe. He is too “good” for virtue. The man who knows may disdain knowledge as no ignorant man has the right to do, and the man who has control of himself—of his emotions, desires, and behavior—may disdain morality too. Thus the childhood of the spirit is no mere given biological state. It is the reward for struggle, a condition which only the man who is safe around himself, and with himself, can risk the danger to attain and maintain. It is not for the weak of heart and mind, nor for the self-deceivers who mistake a decadent lust for license for free-spiritedness.
Reborn into the fertile childhood of his spirit, the philosopher-artist begets and gives birth within himself, his masculine seriousness a partner to his feminine playfulness. Thus does he generate thought-worlds, which burst from his internal potencies as stars sparking from out of a chaos. His offspring are new realities and values: the real, the true, the good and the bad. Novel ways of life. The world we inhabit is fashioned by such men, men of the vis creativa, playfully creative types who resemble Heraclitus’s cosmic king as a child playing at dice. The poem of our lives, for which the active types imagine themselves responsible, is in fact composed by men at play in the childhood of their spirit, men in whom the vis contemplativa is itself an active force. The “big-men” of the world, the supposed actors and originators of action, passively follow our script.
The spiritual child moreover is a Yes-sayer; he affirms his life, and the greater whole of which it is a part, all together as one. Consider the biological infant for a relevant parallel. The newborn experiences everything at once, and as one. He makes no distinctions between himself and the world, nor among external objects. His reality is a fused and blurred mass. We can learn from this. I read in a newspaper the other day (forgive me, but I washed my hands afterwards) a column, which I take to be a weekly affair, in which the author reports several items of “good news” to remind his readers of “the true state of the world.” But if he would really perform this service, should he not intermingle the good with the bad, the beautiful with the hideous? For is not the world at every moment a surge and a swelling of every species of act and event, the kind and the cruel, the graceful and vulgar, the merciful and the vengeful? Redemption is no more real, or “true,” than crime, the warrior no less than the monk. Likewise with ideas. Here is Parmenides, there Heraclitus; here is Democritus, there Plotinus; and look, here too are Homer, Cicero, Dante, Shakespeare, Galileo, Hobbes, Goethe, Newton, Hume, and Kant. Ah, choosing sides is so tedious, the bluster of the “true” and the “false.” I say: All things are always changing in every way, and yet everything always is at every moment. The one is in the many and the many in the one. Time and eternity. Being and Becoming. Enough! Dionysus is dismembered and restored. Forever. The frenzy never ebbs, never ends.
Let us then affirm this corybantic conglomerate, in its beauty and its brutishness. It is necessary after all, and in the end we wish some day to be Yes-sayers.
10 November, postscript
One last thought, my friend, before I post this letter. Let us pledge to recall on the occasion of our every birthday, as on all other days as well, the actual object of all our searching, wandering thoughts: ourselves. In the end we seek only ourselves. The people neither seek nor think; they simply “go along.” The men of science think only superficially. The search for the fundamental atom, for mathematical proofs, for the truth of Plato’s forms, for universal ethical or aesthetic theories: the deeper thinkers understand that these are masks for other questions: Who am I? Why am I? But the deepest thinkers understand still more, namely that these latter questions are altogether unanswerable, and not from cognitive limitations, but rather because no answers are to be had, for nothing real corresponds to the expressions “the true self” and “the true meaning and purpose of existence.” The questions which these others misformulate and conceal are: Toward what end am I living? Or, better: What shall I make of myself and my life? Who do I will to become?
Yes, my friend, we must take these matters into our own hands, for there are no facile and safe solutions to the problem of the universe, which is the problem of life, which is at base the problem, the mystery, of the so-called “I.” But this problem, this mystery, is no puzzle to solve, to resolve or dissolve. Rather it is a labyrinth to experience and explore, boldly, with high-spirits and good-cheer. And this despite—no, not despite, but rather even because of—our understanding that the “I” is only a fiction, a serial epic poem. And we who are simultaneously the author and the actor of this work must construct a fluid self by fusing our Homer with our Achilles. Ah, let him who has ears hear, my friend. We must live dangerously!
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