Thinking Life: A Philosophical Fiction, Part 4—We Scholars, 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.


THINKING LIFE: A PHILOSOPHICAL FICTION

BY MARK ANDERSON

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Editor’s Introduction                                                                                      

1. On the Decline of Our Educational Institutions

Section 1

Section 2

2. We Scholars          

Section 1

Section 2              

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

***                                                                      

CHAPTER 2.  WE SCHOLARS

Section 1

As a graduate student in my late twenties, I began one winter to suffer recurring attacks of migraine fever while conducting research preliminary to the writing of my doctoral thesis. Long hours sitting alone in the dark basement rooms of university libraries, hunched over a desk, chasing down references to obscure manuscripts, translating ancient languages from small-print editions of old books, copying long passages into my notes, formulating and recording my own insights and arguments—all this intellectual labor executed while hidden away from the sun drained me of the vigor I’d acquired as a child on walking tours with my father. I lost weight, grew sallow and weak, my eyesight deteriorated, and the pains in my head, ranging from mild but persistent annoyances to incapacitating afflictions, befell me at least once a month, and during the worst periods I suffered every other week. Sometimes I could not leave bed for whole days through. Yet despite these nagging aggravations I persevered, and my thesis was very well received. Just six months after I took my degree I assumed the professorial chair that I occupy even to this day.

The first three years in my position were extraordinarily productive, despite the persistence of many physical infirmities. Publication followed publication, and my reputation as a meticulous scholar amplified with each new work. I was invited to lecture at neighboring universities, and students enrolled in my department to study with me and my colleagues. My own work centered on comparative analyses of argument forms in the Platonic dialogues, but in our department we specialized in every branch of ancient philosophy, particularly as practiced by the Greeks. Through our efforts, with the invaluable assistance of colleagues in the department of philology, a steady issue of keen young Hellenists flowed out to enrich the cultural life of university towns throughout the region. Would that their influence had persisted through the barbaric years of war! But I have said as much as I intend to say for now regarding the state of contemporary culture. Here I mean to discuss my own situation, particularly as pertains to my intellectual-spiritual condition.

During the early years of my professorship, my health improved somewhat. Thoroughly disabling spells of pain were rare. Yet my headaches did not cease altogether, and they often interfered with my work. Moreover—whether as a consequence of my pain, or originating in a still more fundamental source, I could not then say—I was all too often subject to dreary melancholic moods. These facts were evident to my colleagues, who worried for my health, and my closest friend among them regularly encouraged me to take a cure at a celebrated sanatorium in the mountains of southern Switzerland. Eventually I relented and heeded his advice.

Thus it was that eight years ago this month, on the morning of the summer solstice, I boarded a train bound south for Locarno by way of the St. Gotthard Pass and a transfer at Bellinzona. That night I slept in a rustic old hotel beside the shore of Lake Maggiore, and early the following morning I lumbered up the steep switchback road into the mountains in a post-chaise carriage, an anachronistic mode of transportation which evoked in me the dreamlike impression of travelling back through time into the heart of the previous century.

I quote the following observations of my ride into the mountains from the notebook I kept that summer:

Maggiore is vast, seems endless. To the north, high forested mountains with exposed granite walls slope down to the water. Villages and isolated farms along the shore. Lazy herds of grazing cattle. Bleating sheep. Architecture reminds me of my youth, somehow rather of my father’s youth. Mercury-silver water. Wind. Whitecap waves. (Water dark green when calm.) Small fishing boats. … Oh, I nodded off for a time into semi-consciousness, a hypnogogic state. Heavy head. How long was I out? … Here apparently a resort town. Yellow and cream colored houses with clay-tile roofs built into the slopes. Hotels. … Taller snow-capped mountains now, the high Alps looming. Into the massive foothills, the incline gradually increasing. … The road now twisting up alongside a ravine through which flows a broad stream, or rather a moderate cascade, translucent green water, sun bleached rocks, white water splashing, at intervals infused with narrow run-off falls from the surrounding peaks. … My head bobs with the rocking carriage. Meditative state, a sort of waking dream. … Here a small plateau, a quiet hamlet, the central descending falls dammed up to form a lake. Distinctive alpine flowers now and architecture too (wood-framed windows, elegant designs carved into the plaster quoins). Beyond this the incline steepens and the turns sharpen. Colder now. Pressure in the head. My ears explode. High peaks in the distance before us appear quite near. Goats. Hollow bells. Approaching our destination now, steeper still, hairpin turns. … At last! Level ground and open skies. The Val di Sogno! Spreading meadows carpeted with shining yellow flowers. High mountain peaks massed along either side of the valley, running north. Lakes between reflecting the scene.

Upon entering the little village at the near end of the valley, five-thousand feet above the sea, I rented a room in a small hotel nearby the sanatorium grounds. I was reluctant to reside in the establishment’s available rooms, for as I was unfamiliar with the regimen and routine of such a place, and therefore somewhat wary of it, I had no desire to commit myself entirely to its discipline. I secured reservations to attend the scheduled afternoon sessions of gymnastic training and hot-spring bath immersions, these activities followed by a modest meal of greens prescribed by the staff nutritionist. I had every intention to participate more fully in case I should experience notable improvements. In the meantime, however, I reserved my mornings and evenings for time alone in study and relaxation.

I had arranged to arrive a few days prior to the beginning of my sessions at the sanatorium, my intention being to take the time to explore my new surroundings at my leisure. Therefore after signing for my room and resting an hour with a cold compress on my eyes, I unpacked my luggage and stepped outside for a walk. The experience was stimulating, simultaneously calming and invigorating. The expansive meadows blooming in a profusion of color; lakes lapping serene on tufted shores; towering chains of mountains forested green, granite scored, and peaked with snow; the sky a rounded canopy of an infinitely translucent blue—an hour’s perambulation in the thin delicious air was as a passage through a master’s living portrait of nature sublime. That afternoon I had no doubt but that the sun was indeed an offspring of the Good.

I returned to my room in the early evening psychically refreshed but weary, also with a throbbing behind my eyes. The activities of the day, as delightful as they had been, drained me. Therefore after eating a thick slice of bread with milk, I sat some time in the dark to rest my eyes, then went to bed. Thankfully I had no trouble falling to sleep, and for ten straight hours I floated in a dreamless state of unconsciousness. I awoke the next morning slowly, but feeling thoroughly revitalized. I was excited by the prospect of a day unburdened by the nuisances of travel and with long stretches of free time to occupy according to the velleities of my mood.

My first thought on rising from bed was of the research in which I was then engaged. Therefore, since I had carried my papers and several volumes of relevant scholarship with me in my luggage, I decided to pass some time in study before giving thought to breakfast. After less than an hour of close reading, however, an acute pressure behind the skin suddenly butted against the back of my forehead, causing my vision to waver and blur. The experience was not unfamiliar. Immediately I laid the book aside and closed my eyes, and I sat very still in this posture for several minutes, breathing with intention. This therapeutic was generally efficacious if initiated promptly upon the first surge of discomfort, as on this occasion I had managed to do. Hence the pain subsided, at which point I dressed and went downstairs to eat.

After breakfast, in accord with the maxim that he who takes one hundred steps after a meal will live for ninety-nine years, I left the hotel for a walk outside. I intended to explore the grounds of the sanatorium, which were vast and handsomely manicured, but on the way I was distracted from my goal, captivated by a man proceeding in the opposite direction. He nodded politely as he passed, a mischievous gleam in his eye, and he rolled lightly in his stride with a gay sort of musicality. Yet there also moved about the man a spirit of seriousness, as if his brightness emanated from a core of molten steel. Most striking of all was the book he carried under his arm, for although my view was obstructed, I was sure the spine was impressed with the words, “PLATONIS DIALOGI.” The Dialogues of Plato.

I turned around to watch the man as he walked away, intermittently eyeing his book and scrutinizing his singular comportment. His head sat ponderously on his shoulders, its weight accentuated by his manner of hanging it over his chest as he walked. Yet his feet moved almost like a dancer’s, his step expressive of cheerfulness. I watched him until he disappeared behind an outcrop of fir trees on the far side of which the path wound through a meadow toward a nearby lake. Twice he stopped to study his book, and on each occasion, after closing the volume and tucking it under his arm, he withdrew a little notebook from his jacket pocket, stood for a moment in concentrated thought, then jotted down his musings and moved on. Eventually, as I say, I lost all sight of him behind the copse of fir.

Later that evening back in my room I thought much of the man. The spirit of his surprising demeanor enchanted me—the harmonization of apparent opposites, the reconciliation of shadow and light, resembling less a twilit dusk than breaking dawn. In brief, the partnered notes of depth and joy. Of course all this might well have been a fantasy of my own projection. I knew nothing of the man after all, had seen him only once and for only a few minutes at that. But there was also the intrigue of the book. Reckoning all the relevant facts, I could not dismiss the thought that here was a mystery I must pursue, and that moreover in its resolution lay something like my own salvation.

The following morning, after another attempt to study foiled by pain, I left the hotel and encountered the man once again. Again we were headed in opposite directions, I toward the sanatorium grounds, he toward the lake. And again he greeted me with an air commingled of gravity and joviality, then passed on, stopping from time to time to read his book and take his notes. On this day, however, when he paused on the path just prior to passing behind the outcrop of trees near the lake, as he removed his notebook from his pocket another item slipped out and fell to the ground. Apparently the accident escaped his notice, for he soon walked on without retrieving his property. Overcome by curiosity, and taking the event for an opportunity to introduce myself, I hurried down the path toward the abandoned article on the ground. A folded piece of paper, quite obviously covered front and back with penciled printing. Resisting the urge to read it, I slipped the paper into my own pocket and continued along the path in pursuit of the man.

He was now not too far ahead of me, for he had stopped to sit on a bench in the meadow beside the path. He was neither reading nor writing but staring straight ahead, contemplating—or so it seemed to me—the sublime scenery before him, the multicolored streaming bands of wildflowers, the mountains rising in magnificent piles of green, grey, and white, their frozen summits shimmering against an azure sky, and all this beauty enjoying too a mirror-existence reflected in the crystalline waters of the lake. I did not want to startle the man, so I approached to the side of his bench and waited for him to notice me. When he did, I smiled and said, “Excuse me, sir. I don’t mean to disturb you, but I believe you dropped this back there on the path,” and as with one hand I gestured toward the trees, with the other I removed the folded paper from my pocket and held it out to him.

“Ah, oh, yes, I believe you may be right,” he said, reaching out to take the paper from my hand. And after inspecting it he leapt up and shook my hand, a broad smile expanding beneath his thick moustache. “Yes, Yes!” he beamed. “Quite right you are indeed! And my thanks to you for it, sir. Grazie! Grazie infinite! You have done me a most thoughtful kindness, most thoughtful indeed, so hard-won are the thoughts I’ve recorded here, so vital to my well-being, past and future alike. And for the present, too, naturally.”

My first impression of the man was of one possessed of an amiable spirit, generous with an evident store of goodwill. Yet his manner was charged with an undercurrent of severity, as if he deliberately held some part of his soul in check. The result of this tension was electric, magnetic even, and I confirmed then my earlier suspicion that this was a man I very much wanted to know.

As we stood exchanging introductions, I stole a glance over his shoulder at the book on the bench behind him. PLATONIS DIALOGI: Vol. I. So I was right! But then who was this man before me? Who was this stranger reading Plato in the Greek while ambling among the wildflowers? I knew, or knew of, most all the scholars of ancient philosophy worth knowing in Europe. But I had never before seen this man, nor ever encountered his name.

Reasoning that no lover of Plato would scruple to share his passion with a fellow admirer, I inquired of him directly, “How comes it, sir,” I asked, indicating the book on the bench, “how comes it that you are walking through this striking landscape with a volume of Plato under your arm? That is—if you don’t mind my asking—are you by chance a student of the Greeks?”

“Ah, yes, well, but aren’t we all?” he replied, and the gleam I’d noted the previous morning shone once again in his eye. “That is to say, is not every one of us educated Europeans a student of the Greeks, for better or worse?” And speaking thus he retrieved his book and with a gesture suggested that we walk as we conversed. I followed his lead and walked beside him toward the lake.

“But, to be quite serious,” he resumed, “I was at one time something of a professional student of the Greeks. For every teacher is a student, is he not? Every earnest teacher, that is.”

He then proceeded to explain that he had once been employed as a professor at university, but he was vague as to the details. He seemed to have retired, though he was not at all the age for it. From what I could make of his account, I inferred that his discipline must have been either philosophy or philology, and this prompted me to speak of my own work, to which he responded with, “Ah, a practicing Chiarissimo Professore, then. I see. But then what are you doing away from your desk? That is to say, if I may put your question back to you, what are you doing under this radiant sky without a volume of scholarship under your arm?”

We laughed together at his remark then turned onto the path that wound around the lake. Later, when the way sloped into a forested stretch on a rise above the shoreline, I directed our conversation to the beauty of the meadows and lake below. I was reluctant to continue speaking of my professional life, for that must lead to the subject of my recent malaise, the burden of which I preferred not to impose on a stranger. But we conversed of many things besides, subjects high and low, and we had a grand time together, moving easily between solemnity and humor. After rejoining the path that ran through the meadow toward the village, I thanked him for the company and conversation, then headed back to my hotel. He for his part returned to the bench where we had met, bidding me goodbye until tomorrow, in case we should meet again, which he assured me he hoped we would do.

The rest of the day I remained indoors, and I managed to read and write productively for hours without pain. Later, after dinner, I prepared for my inaugural session at the sanatorium, scheduled for the following afternoon. I laid out a suit of clothes and canvas shoes for exercise, and a pair of linen shorts to wear in the baths. Then I washed my hands and face in the porcelain basin on the washstand and lay down to sleep. The next morning I awoke with the intention of studying before breakfast, but again I was driven to shut my books and close my eyes against a menacing migraine. An hour’s rest dispelled the pain, and I fled the hotel to cool my head in the bracing alpine air. I did not however take my usual route toward the sanatorium grounds. I would visit the place later that very day, and, besides, I reckoned my chances of encountering my new acquaintance better by the lake. And indeed I was right. I spied him as soon as I rounded the trees. He was sitting on his bench in the meadow beside the path, the little volume of Plato by his side.

I approached and bid him good morning, and he greeted me warmly, enthusiastically even. He was in good spirits, as I had come to expect of him, and again we walked together around the lake. Initially we spoke of many things, flowing from subject to subject; but in time he inquired about my presence in the valley. “For,” he said, “I have spent a few summers here over the years, and I do not recall having seen you before. Am I right?”

I confirmed his observation, explaining that this was indeed my first occasion to visit. “I have come to take the cure,” I said.

Although we had only just met, our conversation the previous day had somehow drawn us together. I was entirely at my ease in his company, and I sensed I could disclose to him even my most private thoughts. Therefore I proceeded to relate the facts of my situation, the strains of my professional life, my headaches and melancholia, my specific business at the sanatorium. He in turn listened empathetically, grimacing now and then, even confessed to having suffered kindred ailments in the past until a friend had helped to heal him. Then, with reference specifically to my own headaches, he said, “Ah, well, all right, then. I suppose we shall have to treat you as a contemporary Charmides. No?”

I laughed at his joke, which really did surprise me, striking me not only as funny but apt. He laughed too and took my arm as we turned on the path that curved around the far shore of the lake.

***

The Next Installment


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