Thinking Life: A Philosophical Fiction, Part 6—Divine Madness, 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                          

Section 1

Section 2

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 3.  DIVINE MADNESS

SECTION 1

My head ached terribly as I left the office to which I’d been summoned to meet with representatives of the Senior Administration. Officials at every level of the institutional hierarchy had been “hurt and angered” by the note I’d sent condemning their vision of our university, as I have previously mentioned. Yet they were in no position to dismiss me. My reputation in my field was such that they had need of me, if only to exploit my name for their own advantage. They could, however, reprimand me, make me suffer for my “impudence,” my “perversity” and “lack of community spirit,” and indeed it was implied (very nearly declared outright) that I should expect as much.

As angry as my superiors were, however, they could not match my own rage. Theirs was the frustration of a dominant power unable to subdue every non-compliant will, no matter how insignificant, or how righteous. They would break even a butterfly on their wheel. My own temper was the fiery issue of indignation struck against exasperation. My colleagues and I understood the history of education in the West; we cherished the university as a cultural institution; and we were trained to transmit traditions of learning from generation to generation, each of us a link in a chain stretching centuries into the past, the binding line of civilization. Yet we were subject to a compound force alloyed of several petty autocrats, each individually ignorant and insubstantial, but as a collective reinforced by the final power in our world today, capital.

Beyond the bureaucracy that dominated the university, and thereby indirectly much of my life, was the broader culture, as boorish as even the most philistine member of the university Board. And so insistent too. The hectic commotion of citizens at their puerile pursuits was everywhere unavoidable, especially since, as diverse as their particular passions were, they evidently had in common one and the same secondary interest, namely, the desire to persuade their fellows to share their every personal enthusiasm. Every man a hawker of his own ego. Moreover, it was precisely around this time that business began to grasp the power of perverting patrons into living advertisements. Convince the public that corporate imprints are a mark of status, and mindless mobs of materialistic dupes will eagerly aspire to display their allegiance to the fashionable brands of the day, thereby serving unwittingly as unsalaried promotional agents.

Socrates told his Athenian jurors that the Olympic victor made them merely think that they were happy, whereas he made them really be happy. These days it seems there are only aspiring Olympians and their mobs of squawking admirers. Not a single Socrates among them, much less a Plato. More and more we lose ourselves in appearances, including of course the illusion that we have finally found the real.

Such were the thoughts bedeviling me as I plodded home through the snow from school, stewing over the crude disingenuousness of my superiors, contemptuous of the two-bit merchants and drone-consumers scurrying about the city center. But perhaps I should pause at this point to note, lest I alienate my readers, that I know full well I exaggerate my critique of the world beyond myself to the point of being obnoxious, also to acknowledge my own participation in the cultural corruptions I denounce. I recognized my complicity even at the time of the events I recount in this narrative, but in those days my anger drove me to extremes and I couldn’t help myself.

The truth is that I was sorely disappointed with the world around me, and specifically with the time into which I’d been born. I couldn’t help but think, for example, that had the Italian Renaissance proceeded along its natural course, its roots so deep in ancient soil, Europe might well have been purified of the base elements in Christianity without succumbing to the rationalist French Enlightenment and its crude utilitarian appropriation by the Brits. In that case my specific here and now would be much different, and much better, or so it seemed to me. Our reason leavened with Hermetic mysteries, myth, and magic; our knowledge a brother to our dreams.

To this day I long to escape into another era, a past century. (I have no interest in the future, which according to the popular imagination will be but a sleek, ultra-modern, intensified version of contemporary nonsense.) An irrational desire, I know, but at the time of my story in particular I experimented with irrationality as a mode of liberation, of deliverance and release. Indeed, I went out of my way to lose myself in exploration of every corridor in the labyrinth of madness.

Conversation and correspondence with my friend over the years had encouraged me to pursue a new mode of life. His own manner of being in the world inspired me to live authentically as a philosopher, and to conceive of the philosopher as a creative-intellectual type distinct from, and superior to, the scholar and professional academic. Yet still my thoughts on the theme were less expansive than his, my relation to the type distant and impersonal. Between the time of our initial meeting, when I had only just begun my career, and the later post-war period, I had liberated my long-suppressed aspiration to live an authentically philosophical life, yet I could see no way to manage it. Hence my dissatisfaction, my frustration and rage. Hence also my occasional craving for madness.

According to my own analysis, of myself and of my times, my intellectual and existential potentialities were constrained by the time and place of my birth. I had inherited assumptions and structural beliefs that imprisoned me behind walls of thought which I had no part in designing. I came of age in a positivist era which taught that science alone provides access to the truth. And by science I mean a disciplined study, focused on a field of natural kinds, grounded on evidence acquired through research or observation, adhering to a systematic methodology, proceeding by way of experimentation and the dispassionate analysis of data, and with conclusions justified by appeal to objective criteria. In short, the Wissenschaften, from philology to physics. (I set aside for now the complication that science thus defined is a theoretical construct with no counterpart in reality.)

I say that I was “taught” to believe in science, but this is not quite accurate. One simply absorbed positivism—which is to say, for our purposes, empiricism and materialism—through cultural osmosis, long before one’s proper education began, and even if one’s family was devout. Religious beliefs were a matter of personal faith, private, eccentric, epistemically dubious, and in general shunted off to a region of the mind—or, better, the heart—wholly disconnected from one’s thoughts about the world. Philosophers and theologians from Plato to Aquinas had argued that the metaphysical (call it the “supernatural” if you like) is intelligible, a proper object of knowledge. But certain branches of Protestantism and early modern science formed an alliance against this ancient understanding. From their opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum they insisted that only the physical world is knowable; the metaphysical—its essential nature, of course, but even its very existence—is at best only credible, a matter of belief, or of faith. But in a world of mechanized industry and technology, of concrete artifacts conspicuous to the senses and ceaselessly impinging on the body, material things seem so obviously real that nebulous objects of faith tend by comparison to lose a measure of their presumed actuality, until over time they drift away into the realm of the fantastic and the foolish. Thus do items formerly regarded as realities known by the rational degenerate into fictions only wished for by the deluded.

But my point has less to do with specifically religious modes of thought than with every variety of conception beyond the scope of a reductively rationalist account of intellect and a materialist ontology. Consider Parmenides, Heraclitus, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Plato, Plutarch, Dante, Michelangelo, Pico, Giordano Bruno, and William Blake: who today can inhabit their thought-worlds, so full of mystery, magic, art, science, reality, dreams, visions, fact, and symbol all at once? Who today would want to, conditioned as we are to regard such men as quaint, ignorant, aberrant, or deluded? It’s as though we require the permission of the natural sciences to entertain a thought, much less believe it.

So, as I say, this is the world into which I was born. By the time I learned about such matters as knowledge and belief, truth and falsehood, being and becoming, I was primed to adopt unquestioningly the standard intellectual presumptions of modernity, as if together they formed the bedrock of the unconditioned human standpoint. In short, my philosophical imagination was constricted by historical contingencies which acted on me—or, rather, operated in me—as natural necessities. I could not plumb the depths of Plato’s mind even if I wanted to. And at times I did want to, very badly. But between the ideas that moved me most profoundly and those I was able to believe there yawned a seemingly unbridgeable abyss.

There are times I suspect that the problem I mean to identify here is less an issue of one’s capacity to believe, as a matter of pure intellectual possibility, than of the sort of beliefs one’s surroundings incline one to accept. An ancient thinker wandering at leisure in the open air of nature had easy access to a conceptual field rich and inexhaustible. He could believe in gods, in atoms, in heroes, in tragedy, in war as the father and king of all, in the Delphic pythia and the mystery traditions of Dionysus. The harried denizen of a modern city cramped with man-made objects is more or less restricted to the human things, to the material and artificial. In this connection we might say that a meadow or a mountain was the world’s first temple, and an urban-scape of asphalt, steam, and steel is the copestone on the edifice of disenchantment.

Now, tell me, what resolution can there be of this predicament but madness? One longs to break the bonds of spiritual confinement, to sneak out of one’s own mind, so narrow, so limited and limiting. And the infuriating social constraints! Quite apart from the desire for liberation from a prosaic rationality, one yearns for frankness against the lies of mass culture, against the sophistry of political popinjays and the decadence of intellectuals. Even an infusion of creative fabrication, the freedom of untamed fantasy, is preferable to the realm of mindless labor, shallow spectacle, and unreflective opinion we’ve elaborated for ourselves, or, I should say, against ourselves. Who is alive, alive and thinking, and feeling, in this ridiculous wasteland of mind- and soul-death?!

Burn it down: It’s a shame that after a rush of exuberance or rage one doesn’t burst into flame and disappear.

I wrote this in my notebook walking home from school, my thoughts twisting, choler rising, forehead hot despite the snow, and pounding. I reread the note upon returning home, sitting at my desk. Still in something of a frenzy, I traced the lines over again in pencil, darkening and deepening the strokes. The letters glowed and gave off heat. The words scorched the page. My mind boiled. Come, O madness, my salvation!

Yet as eager as I often was to effect an ecstatic displacement of self from mind, I knew full well that the madman is no philosopher. The insane are neither free spirits nor free thinkers; their ravaged spirits don’t think at all, or anyway not deeply, and their thoughts are warped by their disorder. Certainly they discover no genuine profundities, lost as they are in their shallow mists of dim confusion. True, in our more romantic moods we sometimes fancy that madmen have attained a psychic state so far removed from this world, have slipped into so blissful a realm of ineffable truth, that they voluntarily disengage from the frivolous obsessions and delusions that harass us ordinary mortals. But this, as I say, is but romantic fancy. The mad are in touch with no truth, nor do they have a choice in the matter of their condition. They are simply damaged.

I understood all this. Nevertheless, the facts did not consistently impress me as relevant. An imprisoned man, despairing, may be moved to resort to radical schemes to break the chains that bind him, from dissolution of the self to the throttling of his captor, even if only in his fantasies. But this is all just so much wasted effort, energy expended to no good end. Yet true salvation is in fact obtainable. The problem is that the secret thereto is concealed within a curved mirror, and the mode of discovery involves an intricate decentering of vision. Deliverance issues from a certain kind of madness, to be sure, but human madness is only its distorted image. The authentic look of madness is reflected in the archaic smile etched into the mask of a god.

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The Next Installment

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