Thinking Life: A Philosophical Fiction, Part 2—On the Decline of Our Educational Institutions, Section 1.

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.

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Editor’s Introduction                                                                                      

1. On the Decline of Our Educational Institutions

Section 1            

Section 2

2. We Scholars                         

3. Divine Madness                          

4. Hard Fate and Black Bile

5. The Wanderer and His Shadow

6. The Art of Philosophy





I returned to the high mountain valley many years after my initial acquaintance with the man, who had later become a friend, though an age had passed since last we’d been in company together. Correspondence sustained me during the periods of our separation, but as a variety of intellectual, psychological, and spiritual frustrations had lately produced a pressure in me expanding almost to the point of bursting, I needed to see him again, if only to walk in the rejuvenating air of his presence. Thus it was I went into the mountains. To find him. It was for this I had gone the first time too, though of course I hadn’t known this then.

The summer of our first meeting I was a professor free for the season, officially at liberty but practically often at my desk, reading and writing, erecting buttressed edifices of research and argumentation. Also in the afternoons taking the cure at a local spa. He was the carefree philosopher-artist travelling abroad, or rather idly wandering, creatively replenishing the storehouse of his intellect and imagination…

Or was I the free-spirited thinker and he the diligent scholar? These days it’s a labor to recall, though less from the fading of memories than from the final overcoming of such distinctions, the interblending of types, effected over the course of many intervening years.

But I should begin my story from the beginning.

Last year, after a decade teaching philosophy at my university, I had finally had enough of my “work-life,” as the technocrats are pleased to call it. I was indifferent and uninspired. Hostile even. Ten years suffices for any routine, I say; and one should change one’s life at least once every decade. Certainly one should change one’s job. Jobs kill, sometimes undermining the health of one’s body, always eventually crushing one’s spirit. Which is not to denigrate work or activity, mind you. To the contrary. Activity is noble, natural, the actualization of one’s proper potential. Jobs on the other hand exploit the innate tendencies of human nature, and the biological facts of human need, and divert them toward adventitious ends, specifically the ends of consumption or the accumulation of capital. Social and corporate propaganda induce the masses to spend money which isn’t theirs (which rather belongs to their creditors) to satisfy manufactured desires toward the ultimate end of increasing the wealth of the few. And more often than not these few—these Associates of the Board, these Executive Administrators, these Presidents of the institution—are a herd of lowing philistines.

Oh, when the seeking of wisdom is debased into a petty job-seeking!

It is fitting that the origins of the word “job” are unknown, cloaked in the mystery of shame, hidden under a rock. Appropriate too is the speculation that the word derives as a variant of the word gobbe, meaning a “mass” or “lump,” as in a masticated gob of matter rolling around inside one’s mouth. A suitably distasteful image, that. Johnson defined “job” thus: “A low mean lucrative busy affair. Petty, piddling work.” As a verb the word has meant, from as long ago as early in the eighteenth century, “to pervert public service to private advantage.” From such lowly origins has the job ascended the summit of our most eager desire! This is the world we’ve built for ourselves, the environment to which we’ve adapted, the lives we’ve rashly chosen to live: with every passing year, with every annual expansion of the grasping reign of the “business man,” abetted by ever more subtle refinements of mass-marketing and advertising schemes, formerly independent adults are pressured to join the “work force,” pressured or deceived into believing that as paid laborers they will discover their liberation. Freedom through work and wages! In reality these “workers” are servants dragged beneath the wheel of a degrading system, slaves of the basest sort of master, the corporate functionary, the Manager. And “job,” according to Johnson, may also mean “A sudden stab with a sharp instrument.” Indeed!

Having said all this, I admit that no one observing the conditions of my own employment would regard me as a wage-slave. I live and work among the so-called “intellectual classes,” who enjoy a degree of leisure unavailable to those whose labor consists primarily of bodily toil. I earn my living (a brutal expression!) with my mind, tongue, and pen, which is to say that I am paid to think, talk, and write. I am, in short, a university professor, endowed with all the rights and privileges pertaining to the position. For example, my employers formally encourage my intellectual and expressive freedom. Not that they appreciate, or even understand, this sort of freedom. But they superintend an operation whose lifeblood is uninhibited theoretical exploration, and although they would gleefully eliminate every manifestation of culture beyond their boorish comprehension, they would never actually apply such pressure as to finally still the heart of the beast that funds their salaries.

Before the war one could expect a certain nobility even among the masters of industry. They were generally men of good breeding, well-reared and properly educated, so even those members of their caste unmoved by a genuine love of art and ideas at least bore a grudging respect for those who cherish the finer things, deferred at least in certain spheres to the curators of the higher realms of the heart and mind. So degrading was the late conflict, however, so barbarous and dehumanizing, that noble ideals were stacked and buried in the trenches along with the best of our youth. Years on, and still they have not been excavated. And, oh, the barrage of disinformation and deceit launched against the nations by their own governments! The crude expressions of chauvinism, hysteria, contrived outrage and sentimentality pushed by the party hacks and ideologues in the blotted pages of their newspapers, magazines, and nasty political pamphlets! So routine did these practices become during the long years of war, so effective were they in influencing public opinion, even in shaping—or rather distorting—our ideas of human value, that they were finally entrenched in our discourse, public as well as private. By now they have long since taken up residence in our very self-conceptions. Today we voluntarily do the bidding of those who would degrade us. In short, quite apart from sacrificing countless lives to no good purpose, the last great war stomped with its bespattered boots heavy on the neck of human culture.

Radical technological changes imposed on society in the aftermath of the war have only precipitated our decline. Military developments, to the production of which the bulk of our financial and scientific-intellectual resources were directed during those awful years, were afterwards adapted to non-martial ends. Our traditional social order was thereby fundamentally transformed, and the revolution was packaged and sold to us as an assortment of conveniences, labor- and time-saving devices, facilitators of our ease. Yet this technologized industrial world turns out to be more hectic and chaotic than ever. Anxiety and dis-ease increase. The fact that certain forms of pleasure and diversion are more accessible to greater numbers of people does nothing to alter this; it only distracts us from the inevitable consequences. We no longer have time for the free play of the spirit. There is time only for work and “fun.” The vapid and the vacuous. Worse, so surrounded are we by our novel devices that we have come to believe only in the now, the new and artificial. We have lost contact with the old, to say nothing of the eternal. These days are we not almost entirely separated from the world of nature?

Since the conclusion of the war the city has become our All. The mechanized urban world of material goods and bodily pleasure has migrated to the center of our consciousness, has become the focus of our attention and desire. These changes, moreover, have served to further the monetization of our lives, transforming our species by the quarter into a homo economicus. I have complained that recent revolutionary transformations were “packaged and sold” to us, and this is more than a figure of speech. The corporations that design and develop new technologies give no thought to promoting or supporting our moral or existential improvement; they operate exclusively for their own enrichment. In recent years they have even begun to manufacture modified versions of their products to sell to children, not because children need or naturally desire them, but because the young are easily manipulated into craving them, and once they are accustomed to owning and making use of them, once they become dependent on them, they can be counted on to purchase the authentic so-called “mature” versions of these products when they themselves enter the market by way of securing their own jobs.

I am reminded of an experience from not long after the war. A friend and I were walking through the woods, relaxing, conversing, occasionally stumbling on a hastily covered cache of expended shell casings. As our talk turned to the degradation of intellectual, cultural, and even of spiritual life effected during the war, we grew agitated and raised our voices, despairing at the futility of working toward a renaissance. Of course we would strive to maintain our personal aspirations, but there seemed no hope for the rehabilitation of institutions supportive of a life as any other than an economic affair. The machine of industry was designed to be ever-expanding, and its gears and belts swept everything up into its blind grinding mechanism. We bewailed the ugliness of it all, barking complaints in bursts of bitter rage. So furious did we become our bodies shook, our blood afrenzy, and we flailed as if to strike at invisible powers. Finally, to exorcize our violent energy, we broke into a run. We raced through stands of pine, leapt over stones, crashed through thickets of brush and were scratched by thorny branches. Our arms and cheeks bled.

Then suddenly we saw two deer standing quiet in the distance. A doe feeding with her fawn at the base of an old stone-pine. Immediately we stopped and stood in place, our arms relaxed by our sides. We fell silent, our breathing slowed. The deer seemed not to notice us, though the mother looked up to survey her surroundings whenever the little one knelt down to graze. Occasionally the fawn nuzzled the doe’s flank and she turned her head to snuffle at its neck. A thin mist played around their hooves and knobby ankles. As we watched the pair we ourselves eventually decompressed, unmoored from our mundane concerns and eased into the environment around us. We became one with the tress, the rippling leaves, and the angled shafts of sunlight. We became one with the underbrush, one with the soil, one with the buzzing insects and twittering birds. We sank somehow into a primordial realm of the spirt, blurred and merged into the unity of nature, indistinct and indistinguishable. For a moment nothing existed but a universal silent stillness. The mild cosmic hum.

Then the crackling snap! of a tree trunk or broken branch disturbed the deer. They started, hurried off, and disappeared.

The spell was broken. The world rushed back in a pandemonium of sights and sounds, and we too were ejected from the whole, stood out once again as isolated individuals over against the world, separated one from the other, divided even within ourselves. The restless return of multiplicity. Overwhelmed by the experience, my friend and I exchanged mystified glances, then turned around and headed back to town. On our way through the woods we kept silent, for all the world as if we feared the lives to which we were then returning.

I can’t say what my friend was thinking on our way home that day, but I myself was lost in meditative reveries on the relative value of nature and art. I thought: I, who have been moved to tears by more than one of Michelangelo’s masterpieces, have stood at times before these same works altogether unmoved. I have for example sat on the marble step in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli across from Michelangelo’s Moses in Rome and discerned no beauty in the thing but only technical proficiency. Moses’ left arm is a marvel of life-like reproduction, to be sure; his beard an impressive evocation in the medium of immobile stone of luxurious curls flowing almost like water; and compared to the figures by other hands surrounding it, the Moses is undeniably an astounding achievement. But must it always take my breath away? Must it always strike me as beautiful? For the truth is that it doesn’t. At times one can feel even somehow ridiculous gawking at the work as if it were a mystic marvel because, for example, the limbs are so very realistic. Why shouldn’t they be? They were carved by a master craftsman with the intention to render them so. Ah, one has seen it all so many times. One gets bored. One sighs and moves on. Yet I have experienced no such tedium when contemplating nature’s works. Even a simple pastoral scene, say of rolling hills, a patchwork of variously colored fields, bordered by narrow stands of cypress and pine, as one sees for example throughout central Italy—even such views of modest nature have about them an endless fascination and inexhaustible beauty.

Perhaps this is the truth in Plato’s account of the relative value of artifacts, natural objects, and metaphysical essences. For whether or not we accept his theory of Forms, or his ontological and epistemological hierarchies, we may certainly agree that nature is somehow more beautiful, and at least in this sense more valuable and more real, than even the greatest of man’s artistic accomplishments. In short, even a humble pair of deer, and the common trees and flowers in the forest surrounding them, are superior—even infinitely superior—to the inventions of Michelangelo’s overwhelming genius.

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