Thinking Life: A Philosophical Fiction, Part 5—We Scholars, Section 2.

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

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CHAPTER 2.  WE SCHOLARS

SECTION 2

From the End of Section 1:

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.

“Now, I will not say that I have recently been reading about you,” he continued. “This volume I carry does not contain that compact little gem of a work. But if I may play the Socrates for just a moment, I believe that I might have a charm for your disorder. But to be certain of it, I propose we examine your condition more closely. If, that is, you have no objections.”

I assured him I was willing to discuss the matter, which was true, for he had won me over utterly with his reference to Plato’s Charmides. But for the benefit of those unacquainted with this dialogue, I should provide at least the following relevant information: early in the Charmides Socrates claims to possess a healing charm to alleviate the headaches plaguing the eponymous central character of the work. The charm is no herb or potion, but rather certain “beautiful words,” which is to say, apparently, the very conversation that is the content of the dialogue, the central topic of which is sophrosynê, which we may translate as temperance or self-control. Socrates explains moreover that his charm must be applied directly to the soul, for, he says, an unhealthy body cannot be healed independently of the soul.

With these facts in mind I anticipated speaking in detail about my condition, psychological and existential. And right I was, too, but my friend’s initial line of inquiry addressed my physiology. That is to say, he began by asking when last I’d suffered a headache, and when I mentioned the pain I’d recently experienced while trying to study, he smiled and said, “Ah, well, yes, of course. And there we have it, don’t we? As I suspected. But listen: even the ancient Charmides at least aspired to be a philosopher and a poet. Are you then content to be merely a scholar?”

The question took me aback. I had no idea what to make of it. Did he mean to attribute my headaches, and perhaps even my melancholia, to my being a scholar? I failed to see the connection, and I said as much in reply.

“Well,” he explained, “the scholar is something of an unnatural kind, is he not? In any case, he certainly is at least a late-comer.”

To this I replied, “I suppose that depends upon one’s conception of lateness. For one might argue that the first great age of scholarship originated among the Alexandrians, which is of course to say among the ancients.”

He not only accepted my point, he expanded on it, remarking that “one could even push the origin further back in time, back at least to Aristotle. You’re right about that. But,” he continued, and here he presented the gravamen of his case. “But what I mean to say, to state the matter frankly, if somewhat crudely, is that the scholar is a parasite. Being small himself, he feeds on the host of former greatness. Or, with the example of Aristotle now before us, we might say that the scholar is no self-mover. The creative man, the man whose life and work the scholar scrutinizes, placing him under the microscope of his myopia—this man, the poet, the philosopher, the artist, he alone is self-moving. The scholar by nature is inert, and he is set in motion by another, specifically by the active impetus deriving from the authentic originator, the prime mover, the poet or the philosopher. Is this not so?”

Here he turned to look me in the face, and in my expression I’m sure he read a tangled amalgamation of agreement and repulsion, in my eyes a confusion of emotions.

“So this,” he continued, perceiving that I was unprepared to speak, “this is what I mean by ‘unnatural.’ The scholar is less a natural kind than an offshoot, an outgrowth, a derivative type. Moreover, to return to Aristotle, since the nature of a thing—nature as physis, you understand—since nature is at bottom an internal principle of motion, which the scholar lacks, as I have said, he must then be unnatural in this sense as well. And of course I’m speaking now of the scholar qua scholar, not qua animal or human being.”

With this he fell silent, and I reflected on his words while following our twinned reflection moving on the surface of the water. “I take your general point,” I said. “Or anyway I think I do. But still I fail to see its bearing on my condition. I am after all quite satisfied with my scholarship.”

“Oh, I’m sure you are,” he replied. “I don’t doubt it.” He did not mean to call into question my contentment with my work, “but,” he explained, “my worry is whether your life as lived moves you to exult in your being, in your being here and now. Satisfaction and scholarship are distinct from cheerfulness and life, no? A man might well be satisfied with his work while nonetheless pained by the conditions of his existence, and the virtues of an industrious scholar can produce an inferior man. Or more to the point, the scholar’s virtues might—and it is my contention that in fact they do—inhibit the growth of the philosopher. And here I must ask you directly: is it really your life’s aspiration to gather and collate information about the ancient lovers of wisdom, rather than to embrace the goddess yourself?”

As he put this final question to me we paused on the path, and he spread his arms expansively to encompass the totality of the landscape around us. Nature entire, but not simply as the world, the physical realm of established material being. Rather, nature as an ever-fertile upwelling multifariousness; a ceaseless flux of creative becoming; a manifold moving like water, self-diverse, surprising and forever fresh, forever new and renewed. This anyway is the impression his gesture made on me, my mind primed as it was by his provocative words, my own mutable mood, and the wild surrounding atmosphere.

As moved as I was, however, still I resisted the thrust of his argument; and I protested that in my life as a scholar I expressed the love I’d felt for the Greeks since my youth.

“Do you mean to tell me, then,” he asked in reply, “that as a boy you cherished metrical analyses of Homer’s hexameter and studies of Plato’s use of particles? I must say I find that hard to believe. Were you not rather moved by Homer’s savage beauty, Plato’s creative profundities? And did you not fancy yourself in daydreams an Achilles, or Socrates, or even as a Homer or Plato remanifest? For surely a passion for the ancient poets and philosophers has never inspired a healthy child to imagine himself a scholar.”

Of course he was right, and his words reminded me of my own youthful aspiration to inhabit a thought-world similar to Plato’s. For years I’d longed to plumb the depths of Plato’s character and mind, to excavate the hidden core of his creative intellectuality, and not for the sake of scholarly discovery or documentation, but rather to chart a course to a similar source of ideas and experiences within myself. University training had redirected my passion, however, and even my studies as a schoolboy had concentrated more on the mastery of grammatical minutiae than on cultivating my aesthetic or emotional sensitivities. Certainly I was never encouraged in school to nurture my own philosophical or artistic impulses, much less instructed how to do so.

This, he said, was precisely the point. “And of course that hasn’t changed since you became a professor,” he continued. “In fact, I’m sure your professional work has distanced you even further from every thought of developing your own intellectual and literary inclinations. The natural creative instincts that attract the authentically thoughtful mind to philosophy as a vocation are discouraged, even actively suppressed, through the training required to succeed in philosophy as a profession. And let’s be frank and acknowledge the reality of the situation, which is this: the philosophy professor does not profess philosophy—instead he is a drone for pedantry, a book-man, a desk-man, a stunted and sallow lecturer. At best—or is this worse?—the academic philosopher translates the insights of his greatest predecessors into conceptually precise terms, rearranging the revised propositions into formal arguments, then analyzing the results as to validity and soundness. And perhaps for a soupçon of creativity he cogitates for himself an implication of, or a counter-example to, the argument, which then he publishes as his own little contribution to the field, or sub-field, as the case may be—but at this point what does it matter, really? The stakes are so very low. Oh,” he concluded with a flourish, “how our Plato must weep!”

We had come full circle around the lake, and as we turned onto the path that ran back through the meadow toward my friend’s favorite bench and my hotel beyond, I remarked that “I suppose old Plato must weep indeed—if, that is, our situation really is so dire. And perhaps it is. But before I can agree in good conscience, I shall have to collect my thoughts.”

I admit I was relieved that we’d reached the natural terminus of our walk, for in the moment I had no coherent reply to his remarks. My head was swimming with ideas, but my thoughts were undeveloped, vague impressions, isolated words, and detached, dangling clauses. Therefore I suggested that we continue our discussion the following morning. I needed time to think, I said, and, besides, it was time I return to my room to prepare for my appointment at the sanatorium.

My activities later at the sanatorium were a refreshing change from my usual routine. The exercise did my body good—I hadn’t stretched, strained, and leapt like that in years—and the healing waters of the hot-spring bath worked into my muscles and joints most soothingly indeed. The vegetarian meal was not at all to my taste, but later that evening I supplemented the nutritionist’s roots and leaves with beef-stew, bread, and a large glass of red wine in a café not far from my hotel. Later, before turning in to sleep, I worked steadily for two full hours with no trace of pain; the ideas came easily and my writing flowed with clarity and precision. Immediately I lay down to bed, however, my thoughts ran back to the morning’s conversation, and although I slept, some small angle of my mind remained awake throughout the night talking, talking, talking. The following morning I rolled out of bed tired, and although I managed to work for a long stretch, in the back of my thoughts the monologue continued ceaselessly. Eventually I set aside my books and papers to engage intentionally in dialogue with myself, hoping thus to clarify my position before speaking again with my challenging new friend.

I asked myself: What exactly had I been up to at my desk, surrounded by my books? Was I living as a philosopher or working as a professor? Or perhaps even merely studying as a scholar? Such questions as these, and the further questions to which they in turn gave rise, formed the theme of my morning’s ruminations.

A knock at the door aroused me from my meditations, and I opened to find the morning attendant bearing a note from my friend suggesting that, since a cold drizzle was falling outside, we meet for coffee and conversation at the café nearby. I arrived on the spot not twenty minutes later, and as I removed my overcoat I was greeted with a cry of “Buongiorno, Charmides! Eccomi qua!” and I saw my friend waving from a table beside a window in the back, the usual aura of mischief and solemnity dancing about his head.

After the waiter had taken our orders I recounted in brief my afternoon at the sanatorium. My friend put several questions to me regarding my experiences there, then eventually he asked whether I’d reflected on our conversation of the previous day. I had indeed, I said, both in the background of my dreams and after waking that morning. “Still,” I began, “whether Plato weeps for me I cannot begin to imagine. But in any case I doubt that my boyish naiveté is relevant to the matter at hand. One fantasizes as a child, to be sure. One plays the berserking warrior, hacking through the enemy’s ranks with a branch for a sword; one harasses the neighbor’s cattle and collapses in the mock agony of one’s death-throes. But these are but juvenile games. Summer larks. Eventually one grows up, one matures. Surely you don’t recommend that I abandon my studies to run wild through town as if I were sacking Troy.”

Of course I understood that he intended no such thing, but I was warming to my theme. Or perhaps I was only stalling. In any case, eventually I carried on. “But as for my being a Homer or Plato,” I said, “which I take to be your actual point, what can I say? There’s no business in it. And I don’t mean merely that one can’t earn a living—I mean to say that there’s no place in our contemporary world for this type of man. Ours is a prosaic age, an age of industry and commerce; and these days even the literary intellectual strives to secure his position among the bourgeoisie. Shall I then revolt against this system? Shall I withdraw into the bohemian demimonde? What good would it do me? None, I should think. And I rather expect it would do me grave harm.

“Think of it this way,” I continued. “The academic life affords me the opportunity to pursue my passion for philosophy in a socially acceptable manner, indeed in a respectable manner. It is, if you will, the responsible, adult expression of those youthful frivolities that were once, no doubt, entertaining, but which no serious man can sustain beyond his childhood. In short, then, I mean to say that the scholar’s life is admirable, decent, and sensible. We are after all no longer children.”

“Ah,” my friend interjected, an arch expression brightening his face, “but on that last point you must speak for yourself, I’m afraid. But I shall hymn the virtues of the child some other time. For now I should make it clear that I acknowledge the prudence of life as you describe it. All due respect to prudence, of course, and honor too. Nevertheless, I must at the same time insist on the viability—or, better, the superiority—of a life beyond this. Not a life of children’s games, playing the hoplite with imaginary heroes. Of course not that! But, more to the point, I wonder whether as an academic you do in fact pursue your passion for philosophy. I suspect that what you call the responsible expression of this pursuit is actually a transformation so complete, so radical, as to amount to the abandonment of your passion.

“Consider the difference,” he continued, “and the distance, between the philological study of a Platonic text and the rational analysis of Plato’s ideas. Moreover—and this is the crucial point—neither of these activities is the sum of a life lived philosophically. Philological study and rational analysis may be elements of the philosophical life—in fact I am sure they are. But taken as ends in themselves—and, as you know, the perverse domain of academic professionalism promotes these as the highest ends—taken thus they divert one’s attention from philosophy to logic and scholarship. This is why the typical professor eventually abandons the love of wisdom for the calculus of practicality.

“In sum, then, I say that if your passion really is, or ever was, philosophy, it’s likely that you have abandoned it. The scholar, the academic, the professor of philosophy is not a sensible philosopher. He is no philosopher at all.”

“No philosopher?” I sighed, and this bare expression of surprise was the extent of my contribution.

“Yes, well, all right then,” my friend carried on. “Permit me to explain. Now the following thought may not apply to other disciplines—the natural sciences, for instance—but as for philosophy, the profession tends to destroy the vocation. The virtues conducive to flourishing in the vocation—unbounded intellectual independence, reckless exploration, visionary leaps tempered by a bold skepticism, creative conceptual and linguistic expression—in short, thinking without limits—these virtues are suppressed by the requirements and routines of the profession.

“Having said this, however, I should stress that I don’t mean to denigrate the value of scholarship altogether. Creativity devoid of expertise is vacuous—as expertise devoid of creativity is pedantic. Philosophy springs from the proper intermingling of artistry and knowledge. Substance and style. Matter and form. And above all, life, abundant and overflowing. Yes, as I have just suggested, the philosopher must be—or at least it’s best if he once has been—a scholar, but he must become much more than this. He must master the skills of scholarship without the discipline mastering him. But this is no easy undertaking. The effort requires so very much time and concentrated dedication that over the years, and by imperceptible degrees, the average young academic eventually adopts the scholar’s modes of evaluation, including of course the thought that the scholar’s life is in some decisive respect superior to the philosopher’s. Then, my friend—ah, well, then it’s all over with the love of wisdom, and no aspiration higher than the accumulation of knowledge remains.”

At this point he paused and looked at me closely, narrowing his eyes. Then, after a moment of tense silence, he relaxed and continued.

“Listen,” he said, “Plato’s Charmides suffered from his own peculiar problems, much different from yours, no doubt. Whether he sincerely aspired to philosophy and poetry or was only blustering to impress his fellows, I can’t say. But either way, in the end his lust for power and pleasure destroyed him. His headaches may well have been no more than the inevitable consequence of his debauchery. But his fundamental flaw was that he did not know himself, or rather that he didn’t even care to try.”

Here I nodded my agreement.

“And how about you, my friend?” he asked. “I have been thinking of you, daily pondering your condition, on the assumption that philosophy is more to you than a profession, that some part of you, deep down, desires to live philosophy rather than merely to study it. But am I right? Only you can make this determination—if, that is, you really know yourself. Head pains alone could have a purely physiological etiology, but together with melancholia I suspect a psychosomatic source. But, as I say, I must leave the final diagnosis up to you.”

I knew my friend was right, of course. Right not only about the possible diagnoses, but also in his specific analysis. My problem likely was psychosomatic, certainly at least for the most part. I hadn’t tended responsibly to my physical health over the years; and perhaps I’d been even more neglectful of my psychic well-being. But still I was not convinced that at the root of my malady was the fact that my scholarship suppressed my philosophical drive. Therefore as he finished speaking I was thinking less about his concluding remarks regarding my condition than about his apparently blithe dismissal of “the accumulation of knowledge.” It was evident that he’d meant to distinguish knowledge from wisdom. But this made no sense to me, and I said so.

“But wait,” I began, “let’s go back a minute. If I heard you correctly, and I believe I did, you implied that wisdom and knowledge are somehow distinct. Was this really your intention? But this can’t be right, can it?”

He made no reply to my question, but only smiled his arch smile, and his eyes again gleamed mischievously.

“No,” I continued, “this cannot be right. Does not the way to wisdom run along the road of truth?”

His face now shone more brightly. He leaned forward.

“And does one not proceed along this road by way of accurate interpretation achieved through objective analysis, which is to say, in a word, by way of knowledge? Of course one does! One walks the road to wisdom by seeking and knowing truth. We have understood this since Parmenides, father of logic, master of knowledge!”

Now a look of delighted surprise passed over his face, prompted by my discernment or my folly I could not tell.

“In short, then,” I concluded, in a tone intended to communicate definitiveness, “wisdom by definition is the possession of certain knowledge of objective truth. Surely. I am only paraphrasing Aristotle here, from whose analysis I infer that the sage is preeminently a knower, the wise man one who knows the truth. Of this at least I have no doubt.”

My friend sat back in his chair, and I read from his expression that my appeal to certainty had not moved him. I suppose it didn’t help that as I spoke my head began to ache, and that my pain was apparent from my having to massage my forehead. For his part, my interlocutor was utterly relaxed, only the pulsing of his right temple hinted at the whirring of his mind. Slowly he leaned forward again, laid his palms on the table, and addressed me with his customary tone of genial seriousness. “Well, friend Charmides,” he said, “that your mind is wholly untainted by doubt is clear from the zeal with which you express yourself. Very good. But whether your expression manifests a passion for philosophy is another matter. But I see now that we shall have to pursue this at a deeper level, and I shall have to apply my charm to your peculiar overestimation of the value of truth.”

Then rising from his seat he smiled and said, “But let us put this matter off to another day. It will not be easy work; we shall have to prepare ourselves. Besides, as I see that the rain clouds have finally exhausted themselves, and the sun peaks through their dispersing ranks, we would do well to give ourselves over to the uncommon joy of a meditative stroll around the lake.”

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The Next Installment

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