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
1. On the Decline of Our Educational Institutions
2. We Scholars
3. Divine Madness
4. Hard Fate and Black Bile
5. The Wanderer and His Shadow
6. The Art of Philosophy
CHAPTER 4. HARD FATE AND BLACK BILE
I have thought much about my father since he died, and more and more I remark his influence on my life and personality. Given the irregularities of our relationship, I suppose I was more immediately influenced by my mother’s side of the family, but my father’s spirit moves powerfully within me. From him I inherited a meditative mood and a taste for nature’s solitudes. From my mother’s line, which includes several lay intellectuals, and even one university professor, I inherited an appreciation for precision and a drive for knowledge. From my father, form; from my mother, content. Thus the tension within my spirit between artistry and scholarship. And beside this tension another psychic strain, an inheritance from both sides of the family, if more directly from my father’s line: a current of existential morbidity that surges like a murky river through my life, flowing in turns beneath the surface, where though unseen it works its black magic nonetheless, and above ground whirling in circulating eddies of self-reflective despondency. Acedia, a painful sadness with the world, even unto the working of death, according to Christian teaching. Taedium vitae, a boredom with life, as learned Latinists have sometimes called it. Melancholia, according to the Greeks, an excess of black (melaina) bile (cholê), which Aristotle in his Problemata compares to the effects of drunkenness.
Aristotle’s account of melancholia is curious, to say the least. In it one encounters definite points of contact with our contemporary understanding of the affliction, but also bizarre divergences. Those with an excess of black bile tend toward intellectual or artistic genius, he says, and he names Plato and Socrates as examples of the type, also “most of those concerned with poetry.” This resonates with our idea of the saturnine artist and pondering man. But he adds that this effect depends on the bile’s being overheated, which condition may also induce madness, lustfulness, or talkativeness, and these symptoms seem only distantly related to melancholy, if at all. As for those whose black bile is chilled, Aristotle says that they may be subject to unreasonable despondency and the inclination to suicide, which sounds very much like melancholy, shading into depression, as we experience these disorders; but he insists that these same people tend to be slow and stupid, which does not ring true at all. So whereas in our conception of melancholia we tend to associate creative genius with despondency, Aristotle separates them; and with each he associates other symptoms (loquacity and stupidity, for example) that have no place in our conception.
We are told that Aristotle’s student Theophrastus composed a treatise On Melancholy, but nothing of any such work survives. Nor is there an entry for the melancholy man in Theophrastus’s extant Characters, a collection in which the author sketches the personality traits of thirty different types of man. A puzzling omission indeed if there were in fact, as Aristotle reports, such a number of melancholiacs among the great thinkers and artists of his day.
I have often wondered at the ancients’ relative lack of interest in melancholia. Is it not as lamentable as remarkable that Plato, for example, who wrote so eloquently, and so extensively, about goodness and virtue has left us not a single recommendation for preventing or curing the malaise of melancholia? And you will search in vain the tens of thousands of words which Aristotle wrote on virtue and happiness for even a mention of melancholia, much less for a prescription against it. And as for Epicurus, that philosophical physician of spiritual health par excellence, the mental disturbance from which he seeks relief is not our melancholia, however much in general terms his fear of the gods and fear of death may seem to resemble it. Read the man’s letters: whatever condition he means to diagnose, it is not melancholia.
Since I myself am intimately acquainted with the symptoms of melancholia, by way of both personal experience and observation of my father, I record here an account of the melancholy man in something like the spirit of Theophrastus’s Characters:
Melancholia we may describe in brief as a state of wistful mournfulness regarding the whole of one’s existence, to include the joyful as well as the sorrowful moments of one’s life.
The melancholy man is periodically despondent and blue. He suffers from a sort of low-grade nostalgia for nothing in particular. He feels he has been deprived of something, but he can identify no specific item as the object of his concern. For example, he may regret the roads he didn’t take while knowing full well that his way was best for him. He may mourn his lost youth even though he would not if given the chance relive it. He may grieve past lovers while sincerely insisting that he has no desire to rekindle the flame. In short, the return (nostos) for which he aches (algos) lacks specific content, and therefore he suspects that in the deepest sense his problem is not a frustrated longing for home, but rather that he has no home to revisit, and never has. He is adrift in a void seeking solid ground. In the end perhaps he’d like to return to the warm blankness of the womb, or to crawl back into non-being.
Nor is the melancholy man exclusively nostalgic. He suffers also from anticipatory grief. Conjuring before his mind’s eye future pains and sorrow, he suffers from them in the present. Even his future happiness grieves him, for he envisions also its passing.
But no man can fully represent the type who does not also treasure his pain, even to the extent of seeking it out. His ache is a foretaste of death, and although the melancholy man is not necessarily suicidal, he is comforted by anticipations of the end. A strange sort of comfort, to be sure, the comfort of a sick child abed in the care of his mother. Fuzzy head and warm blankets; half asleep throughout the day; staying home from school. For the melancholy man, life itself is at times the sickness, old age the warmth, and death his tender mother. The final ministrations.
The melancholy man is not bitter, gruff, or rude. He may be perfectly polite, amiable and affable. His condition rather lies beneath his general public affect. If it surfaces in company, it may appear as a distracted lack of interest in contemporary concerns, a smile that masks no ill-will but which seems somehow forced.
The melancholy man regards the life of an individual, like the history of the West, as a steady decline from romantic mystery to prosaic disenchantment. His world wears out its wonder.
And to conclude with a poetic flourish, we may say that of the seasons the melancholy man resembles late autumn: yellow leaves wind-tossed on an ocher field, early snow on the crests of neighboring hills. As weather he is an overcast afternoon: low-hanging clouds; no rain, but no sun. He is the scent on the breeze of honey-suckle or freshly mown hay, the wrenching of sensual memories. He is a faded photograph of his father as a child.
Thus my attempt at a Theophrastan account of melancholia. It is only a sketch, I know, but in this I adhere to the example of the Characters. I’m afraid I haven’t the time or energy, nor the wickedly diverse learning, of a Robert Burton. But to return to my father, my recollections of whose life and death have prompted these reflections: I recall that my father used to say, “The good I can usually manage. It’s joy that eludes me.” This self-assessment may not have been altogether accurate, for the man on occasion indisputably fell short of the good, especially later in life. But I take his point, particularly since his lapses in virtue were in some sense voluntary. I mean to say that my father’s vices were not the issue of ignorance, psychic injustice, or weakness of will (as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle would have it), but rather they resulted from a sort of willed perversity, an intentional assault on the pretty seductions of conventional ethical standards. This is not to suggest that my father doubted the objectivity of these standards; I’m sure he never gave the matter the depth of thought required to come to this conclusion. Rather I suspect he subverted the good while faithfully accepting it as good, that he knowingly acted against his own interests in a frustration of self-laceration, as a chained animal will gnaw its own tail or maul its hide. And even if my father’s motivations to vice were unconscious, and therefore involuntary, still I think the ancient ethicists fail to account for his failures of character. He suffered from an existential displacement, as I have explained, and even though he was not to blame—neither for that matter was his father, the floods, the cosmos, God, or the absence of God—despite the “innocence” of his being thus out of time, out of his proper atmosphere, and consequently out of sorts, psychologically speaking, nevertheless he punished himself for his condition. Whenever his life was going well, which is to say when he was not beset by melancholia, he was as virtuous as any well-mannered little Nicomachus.
I stress my father’s capacity for virtue to recall my earlier expression of wonder at the ancients’ fixation on virtue to the near total neglect of melancholia. For it seems to me that a well-reared individual will with age and experience sort out virtue and vice for himself. He may well require the assistance and encouragement of his family, his peers, and the appropriate enculturation, including explicit education in the theory and practice of virtue (though this last is far from necessary). But this is just to say that the human animal must learn to become fully human, that nature unchecked will not do the work for us, as it operates among the other animals. When young, one may in minor matters indulge every variety of venial vice, but unless one is corrupt at core—pathetically weak, self-obsessed, or outright sociopathic—eventually one will find one’s way to a virtuous life. This state is called “maturity.”
But if virtue is in fact so readily attainable, why were the ancient philosophers so preoccupied with the subject? Why the continual production of theories, arguments, allegories, and exhortations, the speeches, songs, letters, poems, treatises, and books? And why the relative paucity of attention to our psychological, spiritual, and existential condition? Were the men of their time so much more inclined to vice than we are today? And were they less subject to melancholy? I cannot bring myself to believe it.
Perhaps we should regard the Greeks’ obsession with virtue as at least in part an unconscious acknowledgement of the presence of melancholia among them. Perhaps it was their attempt at a cure. Given the social-political strife that often thrust the city-states into frenzies of murderous civil war, with a hostility among factions simmering even in times of peace, it may well be that virtue and vice, in and for themselves, were indeed necessary subjects for public reflection. But it may also be that the Hellenistic ethicists’ concern with hêdonê, ataraxia, and apatheia—with, that is to say, pleasure, freedom from mental disturbance, and mastery of one’s emotions—make explicit themes that were implicit but active in the work of their Classical predecessors.
The so-called “Wisdom of Silenus” goes back through the Classical period (it appeared for example in a lost work of Aristotle) into the Archaic and the poetry of Theognis, who relates it as if it were ancient even in his day. According to the story, Silenus the satyr, having been captured by king Midas, in return for his freedom revealed that the best of all things for mortals is never to have been born, and second best to die as soon as possible. Now this certainly expresses a gloomy view of human existence, and one may well project a strain of melancholia into the hearts and minds of the people among whom this perspective thrived.
But what a peculiar phenomenon is melancholia! One marvels that men are so often so very unhappy. So stressed, anxious, and fearful, so full of sorrow and self-doubt. It is as though we sense that something dreadful is the matter with us, fundamentally, at our core. A something unspecifiable and unnamable. And I suspect it is worse that the malady is not lethal, but rather troubling, unsettling, dispiriting, like a pinprick of disquiet whose source one cannot identify, and which never goes away.
Once at a gathering of my extended family I overheard a young cousin announce that “Life is fun!” in the midst of his childish play. I often wonder what he would say today, twenty years on, and what he will say if he reflects on the matter twenty years from now. As playtime has long since come to an end, and real life commenced, I doubt that “fun” will spring immediately to mind. At best one might hope for “confusing,” “absurd,” or “difficult,” but more likely will be “disappointing” or “vexatious.” Life is suffering, the Buddha said, and for two thousand years men have conceded the point, even insisted on it. But what if one wishes to overcome suffering not by exchanging desire for an arid asceticism, but by transcending it into cheerfulness? Where is the physician who knows the prescription for this therapy of joy?
“Joy eludes me,” my father said, and I suppose this sums up one aspect of the human condition. Even the ancients’ eudaimonia, the good life of virtue, does not ensure happiness as cheerfulness, as the absence of melancholia. Nor I think does a virtuous life render these states more likely than not, not much more likely anyway. In short, though virtue may be necessary for a good life, it is not sufficient. Whence then comes my father’s elusive joy? One would appreciate the insight of the truly great minds on this matter, just one short dialogue from Plato’s pen, the scraps of Aristotle’s lecture notes. Alas, we have nothing.
Our ignorance on this point is particularly disturbing because the thinking man who cannot overcome his melancholy is in danger of slipping into a still graver condition. I recall conversations with my friend on the subject of nihilism, a theme which when I first made his acquaintance he had recently determined to think through to its end. Over the years he explored a number of different accounts of the origin and nature of the condition, all of which were as insightful as provocative. Here I set down the terms as I recall them of the one of his formulations that resonates particularly at this moment of sustained reflection on my relationship with my father.
In the West we have believed in and expected, indeed at times even actively sought, an end-state of cosmic history, a telos to supply a meaning and purpose to the whole and to each of its parts. This end might have been the arrival of the Kingdom of God, a fully realized moral world order, peace and harmony among the nations, or even universal annihilation, which if unpleasant would at least mark the fulfillment of a goal. But today we no longer believe in final causes: neither the universe, world history, nor an individual human life progresses in accordance with an innate directionality. Nothing “progresses,” in fact. Events occur; all happenings merely happen.
We have also believed in an organizing-unifying structure that undergirds and envelops all things, as if each individual were a node within a grand unity, every man occupying his proper place in the whole, like a piece fit snug into a well-designed puzzle. We have imagined ourselves as creatures of God assigned to a particular time and place specifically to contribute to the best of all possible worlds; or as rational expressions of the rational unfolding of the universal rational Spirit, each individual a sensible component of a sensible whole. But today we no longer believe in the Whole as anything beyond our own imaginative construct. Thus we are no longer comforted by the thought that we exist when and where and as we are meant to. No: we ourselves and our surroundings are not modeled on a schematic designed by a good and rational Demiurge. We just are. And then again one day we are not.
We have believed moreover in the Truth of Being manifesting as a True World, the really Real, whether as Plato’s realm of Forms, Plotinus’s One, the Christian’s God, Kant’s noumenon, Schopenhauer’s Will, or the scientists’ facts and truths. But today at last we are finally coming to understand that we ourselves have fabricated this True World from the depths of our need for comforting illusions against the absence of meaning, purpose, unity, and truth in this world. But since for so long now we have dismissed this world as merely apparent, we suffer from the thought that we too in the end may be mere appearances, shadows flitting through a dream with no fundament of the “real” (say, a soul) at our core, nor any external “real” to which we might find our way through reasoning or prayer while alive, or as reward for intellectual or moral virtue after death.
Moreover, our belief in the value of existence has from time immemorial been bound up with these convictions regarding our teleological orientation, our place within a harmonious whole, and our relationship to truth. And even more than bound up with, but grounded on, which is to say logically dependent on. In short, we have believed that human lives have value precisely because they are intrinsically related to a goal, to a unity, and to the truth. Therefore those who lose their faith in final goals, unity, and truth tend to conclude that life is meaningless, pointless, and valueless. This conclusion is one manifestation of nihilism.
Looking back on my father’s life, I have determined that he likely suffered from this particular species of nihilism. Not that he had reasoned his way through the conditions as I have outlined them here to arrive at nihilism as their conclusion. As deep as he was in his way, he was not a thinking man. His spirit was rather an abyss of the unconscious profundities of nature, excavated by feeling rather than by thought. He was, let us say, an intuitive nihilist. He had lived the stages on the way to nihilism; he had no need to think them too.
And as for myself: I certainly was in danger of losing myself so thoroughly in the haze of melancholia as to draw the nihilistic conclusion, or rather to be this drawn conclusion, to live the anti-life of this terrible inference. For as I have noted already in other contexts, however salutary the intellectual changes I’d begun to effect under the care of my friend in the mountains, I still had found no way to incorporate them into my life in the urban lowlands.