Thinking Life: A Philosophical Fiction, Part 7—Divine Madness, 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                          

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 2

Plato in the Phaedrus writes that the greatest of goods come to men through god-given madness, which is, he adds, superior not only to human madness but even to human sanity and self-control. The philosophical life expresses the highest form of divine madness, the philosopher being possessed by Eros. Moved in particular by the sight of beauty, the philosopher experiences a “divine release from customary usages,” liberation from the normal ways of men. And thus “withdrawing from human pursuits” he adopts new modes of living and thinking. He becomes a philosopher, his attention turned toward manifestations of the divine. For this he is reproached by the many as if he were disturbed, for it escapes them that he is in fact possessed by a god.

This theme recurs in the Phaedo, in which the philosopher’s “release” is depicted as a living separation of the soul (or mind) from the body, a process known as katharsis, or purification. And this brings us back to the empiricism and materialism I mentioned earlier in connection with positivism. In the Phaedo Plato denounces as “the greatest and most extreme of all base things” the beliefs, often conjoined, that visible objects are manifest and true—a formulation of the empiricists’ doctrine that knowledge is acquired only through the senses—and that those things are true which the body declares to be so—which in context amounts to the materialists’ doctrine that physical objects alone exist. The philosopher avoids or overcomes this crude positivist dogma through the practice of purification, which is to say through the separation of soul from body, which in the Phaedrus Plato describes as the withdrawal of attention from human things and ascribes to divine madness.

I don’t claim that my longing for madness was always motivated by a desire to live as a Platonist, not anyway as this type has been represented by the tradition. I wasn’t exactly seeking knowledge of the Forms, likeness to God, or unification with the One. But neither do I admit that traditional dogmatic Platonism expresses the philosophical spirit of Plato himself. We mustn’t confuse Platonism the metaphysical-ethical system with Plato the philosopher-artist. Besides, sometimes I was after a Rimbaudian derangement of the senses having nothing directly to do with either Platonism or Plato. And to this end I turned to an altogether different breed of deity, Dionysus.

Ah, yes, god of the vine, in my glass, in my blood and brain. I filled a small carafe and returned with it and a tumbler to my study and drank while thumbing through my notebook, my heated thoughts still swirling around the frustrations of my job, the preposterous masquerades of mass culture, and the devious constraints that stifled the autonomy of my intellect. Since adolescence I’d been a drinker of red wine, initiated into the enchantments of the tavern by my father. I’d given it up in the immediate aftermath of his death, though at the time I hadn’t seen the man for years; but soon I was worshiping once again at the ivied altar of Bacchus, sacrificing my lucidity for visions and insight in return.

Dionysus is a manifold divinity, depicted variously by the ancients as anthropomorphic and as a marauding bull; as a bearded elder and an effeminate youth; as a bringer of delight and a holy terror; as a relief from care and a source of troubled anxiety; as immortal and as slain, dismembered, and resurrected; as a channel of birth and a goad to murder; as a bright Olympian and a chthonic idol of the underworld—in short, as a god symbolic simultaneously of life, peace, and cheerfulness and of death, violence, and madness. And so it is with the bounty of his beneficence, wine. The god’s great blooming vine is nourished by the secret founts of generation and destruction, joy and grief, serenity and disorder. Its roots are sunk in heaven and hell, its fruit sprouts ripe in both realms. Hence the drinking man, infused with a Dionysian potency, is mellow or inflamed, he is a lover or a street-fighter, a wise man or a fool.

As god of the grape and of vegetation generally, of fertility and sex, associated in particular with women and wild animals, with ecstasy, music, dance, and tragedy, Dionysus is both a nature deity and a patron of human artifice. And he is thereby moreover a god of paired opposites, of harmony in tension. Indeed, in the Bacchic rites we encounter just such juxtaposed oppositions—of, for example, life-death, peace-war, truth-falsehood—as we find in the obscure pronouncements of Heraclitus. Dionysus, then, is also a mystic and a philosopher.

As an aspirant to philosophy myself, philosophy as a way of life rather than as a discipline or profession, I often joined the retinue of Dionysian revelers, as I have said. I drank not only to submerge dark moods but also toward the end of intellectual exploration. Dionysian intoxication tends to induce the feeling of power and the freedom from mundane cognitive constraints which together are generative of art. Not merely art as artifact, but art as insight, creative insight, the power of the philosopher-artist to evoke new perspectives and novel thought-worlds from out of voids of darkness.

At the conclusion of Plato’s Symposium—in which Socrates appears as a prodigious drinker—the drunken Alcibiades refers to the “madness and Dionysian frenzy of the philosopher.” And in the Phaedrus Socrates associates the lover of wisdom with the lover of beauty, also with the erotikos, the erotic man, and the mousikos, which is to say the man committed to the arts over which the Muses preside. Among such arts we may include non-mimetic poetry, and, indeed, in the Phaedrus and elsewhere Plato writes of the poet as one who is inspired, mad, and possessed by a Dionysian frenzy. Taking these passages together with the example of Plato himself—author of one among the peak-supreme artistic achievements in the history of the West—we might identify the philosopher with the poet as a free-spirited, exploratory, creative-intellectual artist, as, in short, a disciple of the philosopher Dionysus.

There are times I believe, or anyway I like to imagine, that even God (or whatever one should call the metaphysical source of physical reality, assuming there is such a thing) is such a Dionysian creative-intellectual artist. A theme runs through the mystical branches of the Platonic tradition according to which our spatial-temporal world of physical plurality is but the phenomenal expression of the self-reflective activity of the non-spatial, non-temporal, immaterial One, the appearance of itself to itself under the guise of space, time, and causality. The deity’s act of knowing brings this world into being, or, more accurately, its act of knowing just is the being of this world. In short, when God, or the One, contemplates itself, it knows itself as this world, as me, for example, observing the world around me. My body is but a mode of God’s activity, my mind a mode of the deity’s self-consciousness. As I say, this idea appeals to me, at least in my more mystical moods. However, even when in such a mood I would modify the standard account, according to which the divine is solely an agent and object of knowledge, to include among its self-reflective activity imagination, fantasy, mythologizing, self-deception, speculation, longing, playfulness and jest. And since the One as creative-intellectual artist is unconditioned and unbound, the resulting world of art, philosophy, science, dream, sadness, exuberance and rage never exhausts itself. There is no end of history.

No final end, that is. For, to return to the human realm, the power of Dionysian intoxication can generate more than even the creative insight of the philosopher-artist. The ritual reveler infused with the spirit of the ecstatic god may be liberated altogether from the bonds of the principium individuationis, the principle of individuation, which constrains the human mind to experience the world under the aspect of space and time, through the activity of which the All is divided into distinct and discrete particulars. In the Dionysian experience these categories evaporate, and with them goes the individual too. Temporarily he vanishes from God’s eternal self-reflective reverie. His experience no longer bound by space and time, his very being no longer manifesting spatial-temporal properties, the furious Dionysian sinks into the eternal flux of Becoming, is dissolved and swept away.

This disunion and dispersal of the self, utter dissolution, was at times my singular goal. Systematic derangement not only of the senses but of the intellect and the person too. To exist no longer as a body, soul, or mind, but to burst the bonds of the human frame and to scatter as a surge, a spray, an insubstantial mist of free-floating chemical compounds, or an infinitely expanding range of dissociated particles, waves on an oscillating field, or the undifferentiated continuum of energy circulating at, and as, the fundament of the sphere of materiality. In short, when seized by passions of exhilarated joy or anger I longed to dissociate from myself so thoroughly as to be everything and nothing, to erupt, to explode, to disperse and radiate. Not to die, mind you. Rather I aimed to be a living multiplicity distinguished by a unity of vision.

Of course none of this was possible. Formerly maybe, among the ancients. But no more, and certainly not through drunkenness alone. The closest I’ve come is in moments of enraptured immersion in nature. For example, in the course of certain inspired days hiking in the mountains in the years following my initial visit and the first meetings with my friend. A profoundly transformative potency pervades the alpine atmosphere, its power enhanced by an ambience resonant with a life-force which I shall designate, for lack of a better word, divine. Plato was familiar with the phenomenon. In the Phaedrus he conducts his Socrates beyond the city walls into the natural world, lays him down on soft grass, in the shade of a fragrant tree, barefoot beside a splashing stream. As disinclined as Socrates is to spend time away from the urban center, he admits that the area strikes him as divine. The place is sacred to Pan and the Nymphs, nature deities all, and Socrates later remarks that the divinity of the place infuses him with a divine pathos, that he is even on the verge of being possessed and overwhelmed by the Nymphs’ mania. He had thought that he could learn only from “men in the city,” but Plato suggests that “rural areas and the trees” can teach the philosopher the deepest of lessons, presumably through the madness inspired by their natural beauty.

My friend once remarked that he loves mountain valleys with eyes, by which he meant with lakes. The image has stayed with me as a figure of nature personified, deified, of earth gazing into sky as a god contemplating the contents of its own mind, the clouds drifting overhead its fleeting thoughts, conceptions gathering, shifting, and dispersing, the whole enlivened by the sun as the generative energy of creative intellect ceaselessly bringing forth new life.

So it would seem that Plato was correct, and that madness really is a gift from the gods—if, that is, we may conceive of nature not actually as a divinity, but rather as symbolic of a passage to a state beyond the mundanely human. In this case, then, the look of madness in the smile of a god would flash from the laughing eyes of alpine lakes eternally absorbed in the self-reflective act of nature observing nature thinking nature, an infinite regress of earth, water, air, and fire, beauty perpetually multiplied.

Now imagine a sensitive pondering man set down in such a place. Quiet or clamorous, relaxed or frenetic—is he not mad? Indeed, he is. He must be. For the gods take hold of such men abroad alone in the wild, and caught up in the divine grip they are mad as lovers of beauty, as erotikoi and mousikoi, and thereby are they also mad as lovers of wisdom, as philosophers.

I imagined such a man—my friend as he was, for example, and myself as I longed to be—as I emptied the carafe into my glass and crossed my study to stand beside the window. The sight of falling snow chilled my skin despite the alcohol boiling my blood. Colder still was the realization that for all the apparent tranquility of the scene outside, beyond my small garden and just beneath the layers of ice the cacophonous artificialities of the modern world endured, and even the few remaining stands of natural vegetation had long since been subdued, hemmed in, rationally redesigned and engineered to serve utilitarian ends. I thought: It’s true, alas, the great god Pan is dead.

The disadvantage of being a god is that if you happen to die there may exist no other divinity of a power sufficient to resurrect you. And if God is dead, then we humans will have to confront alone the challenge of identifying the motivation and means to surpass ourselves as we are. For if nothing exists beyond the human, to what higher condition may we reasonably aspire? And here we circle back to the theme of unreason as a mode of liberation from the constraints imposed on the mind’s free movement by historical and cultural contingencies. If philosophy is not strictly divine, still the philosopher who seeks more than employment or a reputation must strive to be somehow more than conventionally human.

My own approach to this predicament was to devise and explore novel modes of thinking and sensing, bold new forms of life and expression. But although I could imagine, dream, or hallucinate such spiritual innovations, I could not live them, or I could carry into life and action only their palest shadows. This was the one intolerable thing. The limitations of the real constantly chagrined me. Hence the necessity of madness, the warping or outright annihilation of the cognitive a priori, revolt from modern bourgeois strictures on imagination and action, and the imperative to resist the prevailing perversion according to which the nature of the philosopher is exhausted in the person of the scholar, the academic, the professor of philosophy. Hence, in short, my desire, not to solve a mystery, but to create one, in myself and of myself.

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The Next Installment

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