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, has been 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 is 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.
This is the final installment of Thinking Life. It will remain online until December 2017, after which it will be deleted and later appear in paperback.
Commencing during the week of 30 October to 3 November 2017, The Rational Human Condition will appear on Mondays and Fridays.
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
I sit down to compose this coda to my story having just arrived home from my office. For the last time. Before departing I slipped my letter of resignation into the campus mail bin outside my office door. I don’t doubt that from time to time I’ll return to visit colleagues and old friends, or to make use of the library, but never again as an employee. My days “on the job,” as they say, are over. Vado in pensione, as my friend would put it. I am going into retirement. Not to dawdle and grow old—I hope this goes without saying—but rather quite the opposite. At last I shall be at liberty to work, my kind of work, my avocation, what I now understand to be my authentic vocation, to think, to write, to live as a philosopher, no longer merely as a professor of philosophy. I figure that since I’m retiring young, I might just manage the thing while I still have time to appreciate it.
Walking home this afternoon I took my usual route, recalling along the way my impressions from last winter as I’ve recorded them earlier in this book. The city and its busy denizens, materialistic conventionalists all, their spirits distracted and dissipated by the basest forms of feeling and thinking, by bogus religion, sentimentality, mass-marketing, and journalism (all of which in the end amount to the same thing)—this hurry-scurry modern city life, which has lost all connection to nature and to the world as it was before the arrival of industry and technology, before our infatuation with the Now!—this scene still repels me. Yet every day I strive to maintain my equilibrium. As Epictetus advised, he who visits the baths should expect to be splashed. I want no longer to let the tumult disturb me. I want no longer to be disturbed at all. Therefore I am determined henceforth to avoid the raucous bathhouse of contemporary culture.
I am going into the mountains.
Throughout the entirety of this, my last year as a professional academic, I have practiced at calmly turning away from the various social, cultural, political, and institutional absurdities that have exercised me in the past. I meditate on the proposition that each act and every event is an element in the construct that is this world, and to that extent at least each one is necessary. What then is the point of butting one’s head against these things? One’s reward at best is a headache. No, from now on I don’t want to accuse; turning away shall be my only negation.
Above all else it is necessary that I turn away from the dying university. The institution in its death throes will thrash about for another fifty years, at least, before its final dissolution. One could stay on without suffering overmuch. But for those with ears to hear, the death-rattle is audible even now. It is a horrible sound, and I want no more of it.
In the mountains I shall find silence, and avoid intellectual contamination. I am going, then, not to run away, not to withdraw exclusively into myself alone, to live as a hermit, bitter and brooding, a fugitive from reality. Rather, my turning away from the busy-ness and baseness of the world shall be a turning toward myself. In the mountains I shall cultivate a pathos of distance in an atmosphere that inspires me to plumb my depths and scale my heights. I shall commune with nature. I shall have space in which to breathe, pure air circulating through my lungs, and time to savor the life-force surging through me. I shall walk; I shall wander; I shall think and write. In short, in the mountains I shall come to myself as if I were meeting a stranger destined to become a friend.
At the start of this year I informed my colleagues of my intention to retire; I spoke also with those students whose work I am presently supervising (as I shall continue to do by way of correspondence). As far as I know they have all been true to their word to keep the matter to themselves. My superiors will be surprised, but I don’t mind to inconvenience the bureaucratic managers. Let them work for their inflated salaries. Besides, they will have no trouble replacing me. When the youngest of my colleagues finally retires, however, they likely won’t even bother filling the vacancy. By then the vulgar technocrats will have driven liberal learning into whatever cramped corner remains unoccupied by training in the professional trades. Little need in that bleak future for the hiring of fresh young humanists.
In time I suppose even the philosophers will succumb. Future students schooled in philosophy will not regard themselves as lovers of wisdom, but rather as applicants seeking entry into a profession. And when at last no lovers of wisdom remain, but only members of the “philosophy profession,” then philosophy will have finally died, at least as practiced in the university.
To be honest, I admit that in my career as an academic I myself have contributed to the debasement of philosophy. Consider my professional activities to date. I have made my reputation analyzing arguments, occasionally by adding to the ever-swelling store of scholarly minutiae. I have written articles and monographs aimed exclusively at my peers. To stake out and defend a position, to refute my opponents, to prevail in the petty contest of academic disputation. I have moreover written, not for the creative act of writing, but rather to produce a text and be done with it. I have been in a hurry. I have not written in order to think, or to imagine, or to inspire, but rather to be read, reviewed, and admired. To exert an influence on my field.
Of course I did not regard myself and my activities so disparagingly at the time, but now that I have adopted an intellectual perspective infused with the demands and delights of creativity, the fact stands out in retrospect as obvious. I have flourished because I am after all sincere in my love of wisdom, but I have been unwell because my love and my conception of wisdom have for years been perverted by the assumptions inherent in the profession through which I pursued them.
But this present book I’ve approached much differently than any of my previous works. I have altogether avoided my usual routine. No strict writing schedule. No stress; no hurry. I have taken my time. Six months, in which span in the past I have written books over twice as long as this. But did I enjoy my writing of them? Was the activity a pleasurable indulgence? Did it lift me up into a state of contemplative-creative cheerfulness? I did enjoy myself, as a matter of fact; but my pleasure was shot through with anxiety. I was eager to draw my inferences and to state my final conclusions. I counted the days. Today I come to the end of this work thoroughly relaxed. I contemplate each paragraph, the sentences and individual words even, as a painter stepping back from a canvas admires the colors coating his hands almost as much as he cherishes the painting itself. Today, in short, I am at my ease.
As for my health, I haven’t suffered a serious headache in well over a year. Not one since finally resolving to retire; and over the course of my acquaintance with my friend, the frequency and intensity of my pains have steadily diminished. My melancholia persists, alas, and I suspect it always will. One doesn’t rid oneself of this condition as physicians eradicate a virus with vaccines. One must apply one’s philosophical charm daily, hourly even. I have come to understand that one dark vein of melancholy need not spoil the marble of joy through which it runs. One must learn to work with it, as a sculptor works with an impurity exposed in the stone upon which he strives to impose his vision of the beautiful. To affirm one’s life, even in its every manifestation, one need not experience only highs and happiness. One must learn to appreciate, and benefit from, even one’s suffering. One must adopt a lofty perspective from the summit of which one affirms events which the self as immediately involved with them decries.
I am reminded of my father, the lamentable figure of a dissatisfied man. As gifted as he was in many ways, he never mastered the art of giving style to his character, of taking himself in hand and imposing his will on his life. His virtues and vices tyrannized over him; he was a slave to his Yes and No. In short, he was not in control of himself. Looking back, I believe that I intuited this even as a child, though I could not have articulated it then. Rather, it manifested in my consciousness as a mystified confusion at my father’s character and deeds, and later as a diffuse sadness spreading out from the man at its center to shade the wider world grey.
He who grows up troubled by indistinct suspicions about his father may develop distorted perceptions and self-conceptions. These may be to his benefit or his disadvantage, depending on his creative power to bend them to his own will and purpose. In my case, the experience implanted in my spirit the seed of an aspiration to flourish with the great health of the man who is master of his virtues and his vices, who dictates to his affirmations and denials, the type of man who puts his strengths and weaknesses to his use, not the other way around, and who rules himself in accord with a plan expressive of a unified taste, artistic and existential. This constraint of style was evident in my father’s craftsmanship, but his life was all too often arbitrary and disorderly. He failed to balance his instinct with a cultivated intellect; his melancholy was unleavened with cheerfulness; and his spirit was corrupted by forces beyond his comprehension. Therefore he suffered, and, as I have said, he succumbed eventually to nihilism.
Now consider in this light the historical Charmides, after whom my friend was fond of calling me. Who knows whether he overcame his own suffering? It is certain at least that Socrates’ charm did not cure him of his lustful self-indulgences. Notoriously, he profaned the scared rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries in a drunken debauch with the profligate Alcibiades, and he died defending the corrupt regime of the so-called Thirty Tyrants. Rather than become the cultivated philosopher-poet of his youthful aspiration, he embraced the nihilism latent in the ideas of sophists like his cousin Critias. However many, and however intense, the bodily pleasures he enjoyed, I doubt his spirit ever found peace or genuine cheerfulness.
I don’t mean to condemn the sophists’ ironic perspective on value and knowledge, which to some extent I share. Rather, I intend to reflect on the supplementary elements necessary to avoid a permanent descent into nihilism. The philosopher must not flee nihilism, but neither should he employ it as excuse to indulge his basest impulses. Nor of course should he sit down in the midst of it, impotent and despairing. The man who would make his way to wisdom must push through to the far side of nihilism, he must live through the whole of it, then leave it behind and outside himself. But for this he must infuse his spirit with the philosophy of life, and his philosophy with the spirit of art.
Therefore I am going into the mountains, for there this variety of free thinking and free living, this wickedly free free-spiritedness, is still possible. One aspires to a higher state than either pious belief or nihilistic unbelief, and the philosopher as poet and legislator, the philosopher as a thinker-artist, may provide an example here. Consider Plato, the paradigmatic instance of the type: like all great artists Plato was something of a cosmic demiurge, a creator of a thought-world. His idiosyncratic collection of concepts and ideas generated an organizing perspective on reality, and since the world itself is constructed through the human perspectival contribution, his system summoned into being a cosmos of experience.
Creative activity on so grand a scale does not depend on belief, nor is it undermined by unbelief. One does not construct a thought-world by gathering an assortment of propositions approved for use through empirical confirmation. Propositions, beliefs, and evidence are irrelevant here. To be frank, I no longer understand what a belief is meant to be in this context. A cognitive attitude toward a proposition? I say this is empty talk. One inhabits and is inhabited by a Weltanschauung, one’s experience is shot through with the ideational content of one’s mind, and the world itself just is this experience. There is neither harmony nor opposition of mind and world. There is only the singular thought-world: this is our “reality.”
I have noted that during my stay in the mountains last summer I studied Plato’s Phaedo closely. I read it again this past Christmas holiday, in preparation for the writing of this book. This time I engaged with the work as one engages with a poem or novel. I lingered over the text as one lingers over a work of art, stunned by the mystery, savoring the beauty, overwhelmed by the wonder of it all. On this reading a surprising new detail came suddenly into view. It may be that I have read more into it than is warranted by the facts, but at the moment the inspiration matters more to me than accuracy of interpretation. The notion of wisdom as phronêsis appears throughout the text, but sophia occurs only twice, both times ironically. First it is the “wisdom which they call the inquiry into nature,” an inquiry that employs a method which Socrates dismisses as futile and confusing. Later, sophia is the “cleverness” of the antilogikoi, the disputatious intellectuals who entangle their opponents with words. This set me to thinking: what if wisdom is only a word, not an actual state? In the Apology Socrates speculates that he is wiser than other men because he does not think he knows what he does not know. But this suggests that “wisdom” is nothing like an accumulated store of knowledge, that it is instead the absence of pretension, which is to say a negative condition, nothing of active substance in itself. It suggests, in short, that there is no such thing as wisdom as an intellectual or spiritual state in and of itself. But if this is so, what then shall we say of philosophy, eudaimonia, and objective moral virtue? Might these too be mere words and phrases, meretricious conceptual finery draped over a void? And what of the other exalted concepts admired by the philosophers, even by myself? What if we are chasing phantoms? What if all there really is, and all there really needs to be, is thinking and life?
At all times and everywhere the pondering man stands out. He blithely declines to participate in the faddishness of mass-life, even in the trends that reign among the intellectual classes. Thus his fellows reach for a word with which to label him. “What is he after?” they wonder. “Let us call him philosophos, a lover of wisdom, a seeker of sophia, for all this thinking must be directed toward some end. No one thinks just to think. No one does anything solely for its own sake. That would be impractical, and man is nothing if not the practical animal.” And thus are the notions of sophia and philosophia born, words floating free of any objective correlative.
Similarly with the pondering man’s way of life. Most men yearn to profit from existence, as if they would not act, could not survive, without a guarantee of the propriety of their actions and the promise of a cosmic reward. They want more than the preponderance of pleasure over pain, more even than the cheerfulness that accompanies a beautiful existence. They want a good life. More, they want the good life, or at least the assurance that such a determinate condition is attainable. In short, they crave objectivity and certainty. They cannot affirm their lives unless they believe that “Yes” is somehow the right answer, an absolute truth inscribed in the stars or in the mind of God.
But, as I say, I sometimes wonder whether all this is just so much gaseous bombast and delusion, a grand conceptual fabrication designed to mask the groundlessness of human life and thought. Mind you, I don’t insist that sophia, eudaimonia, and other such philosophical concepts are a sham, for I don’t presume to know. My point is only that sometimes I suspect as much, and that if this is so indeed, I can be content all the same. For these days I try not to fret over whether I shall discover the Truth, act always in accord with the Good, or satisfy an academic taxonomist’s definition of Philosophy. Instead I endeavor to live an abundant, thoughtful, creative, exuberant life.
I don’t want to argue over labels. I am content to leave “philosopher” to the academics, if that will make them happy. Whatever it is I have accomplished through this book, you may call me after that.
Reflecting on my association with my friend in the Val di Sogno, I realize now that as much as I learned from him, in the end I sought only myself through him. He was to me a purifying mirror. This insight recalls a conversation during which my friend once said to me that underlying all else we do is the ricerca interiore, the internal search. The scientist, the spiritual disciple, and the adventurer on the high seas—every seeker, without exception, no matter the immediate concrete object of his search, is really after himself alone. All the rest is distraction and diversion, a skittering across the surface of life.
This is not to say that we should abandon the objects of our superficial searches, that we should not allow ourselves, perhaps for years on end, to ignore, neglect, even outright to repudiate the deeper search for ourselves. To the contrary, the apparent diversion from our actual search may well be integral to it. In moving away one draws near. For a time anyway. Eventually, however, one must stand honestly before oneself and acknowledge the distractions for what they are: deferrals. Then one must turn intentionally toward the authentic search for the proper goal. One must make the inward turn, or incorporate into one’s inwardness even everything external.
On this model of interior exploration, the seeker’s aim is not self-knowledge in a strict metaphysical sense. One need not assume the existence of a “self,” of self as substance, as stable and essentializing nature, to respect the Delphic gnôthi sauton. The idea of self may be of value even if it designates only a fluid and shifting thing, with no enduring nature, a moving play of surfacing and dissipating, aligning and dissociating, ephemeral forces.
Nor should we misconstrue the “knowledge” at issue here. To borrow from my friend, in the man of great health the will to know is a will to create. As an interior explorer, in the bloom of the childhood of his spirit, he is no cold scientist, intent on objectivity and truth. He seeks no anteriorly existing “I,” fully formed, predefined, waiting to be discovered. Rather, he finds himself by creating himself; he becomes who he is through an ongoing act of artistic-intellectual will.
One seeks moreover to befriend oneself, seeks self-experience, self-communion, internal amity, peace. Do we not after all from time to time suspect that we are strangers to ourselves, and that if we should meet ourselves on the road we would look upon the mirrored image unrecognizingly? That we might even confront ourselves with hostility, bewilderment, surprised admiration, or blank indifference? A wanderer alien to his shadow? All this is indeed the case; of course it is. We need no objective knowledge of a metaphysical self to grasp these truths about ourselves. Much more urgently we require a healing, a charm that is a cure.
I began this book by stating that I returned to the mountains to find my friend. That was last summer, and as I reported in the previous chapter, my search was unsuccessful. I hope to find him this year. But if not, I will anyway have found the way to friendship with myself, which is incalculably more significant.
And so now I am done, with this book, and with this phase of my life. But this is just to say that now at last I shall begin to live. But not here, not in the hubbub of the modern city, with its shallow culture and dying universities. I am leaving all this behind. I am returning to nature, ancient and profound. I am going into the mountains.
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