Inwardly, I sense a growing inclination to move in a fresh direction with my writing and my thinking. But, in keeping with the tenor of an aphorism I wrote the other day on my way to the gym, I see this move as a vertical rather than a lateral one. One way of envisioning this vertical (ascent or descent—or rather, both at once: synoptic altitude and essential deepening) move is to view it as a synthesizing process. What calls for synthesis, as I see it, are the several, more or less self-contained (though not unrelated) arenas of serious thought and creativity to which I have devoted my best efforts these past ten years or so.
In saying this I surely don’t mean systematizing my thought—or attempting to distill it into some overarching imperative or supraordinate principle like ‘the Good in itself’ or ‘the will to power.’ I am instinctively leery of all such unnatural and easily misused guises behind which monism or monotheism can usually be found skulking. For me, the loftiest, liveliest, and deepest philosophical thinking is fundamentally dramaturgical (or dialectical)—and drama, whether high or low, depends on and springs from vitalpsychic tension. A ‘philosopher’ who has gradually, incrementally, and ineluctably come to loathe—or certainly mistrust—abstractions?? Do such mavericks and anomalous turncoats actually exist? Nietzsche, as in so many other ways, preceded (and plotted a course for) me here.
Is it even possible for a serious philosopher to dispense with grand abstractions? Aren’t they precisely the (large denomination) banknotes the philosopher conducts his business with? Aren’t grand(iose) topics like ‘justice,’ ‘truth,’ ‘the Good in itself,’ ‘the will,’ ‘substance,’ ‘mind,’ ‘matter,’ and other such gargantuan concepts the essential ingredients with which the philosopher ‘goes to work’ each day? And what are such bloated and baggy monstrosities if they are not (hollow) abstractions?
Well, of course they can be little more than empty, pretentious labels for what is in fact mere wind, flatus vocis, hot air, mere mental web-spinning. But, if we look closer we see that the exemplary philosophers—like Socrates, Plato, Bacon, and Nietzsche, to mention a few luminaries—were never content with such hollow, verbal-conceptual ciphers and counterfeits, but demanded much, much more from themselves, as well as from their most promising pupils and most careful readers. Contrary to popular prejudices and shallow misconceptions, these and other authentic philosophers have nothing good to say about those ‘pseudo-philosophers’ and impatient thinkers who are always trying to leap over or beyond a fruitful (if occasionally torturous) marriage of the disciplined, well-versed intellect to that elusive and slippery strumpet, the multifarious, mercurial truth. Such spurious ‘leaps,’ evasions, and circumventions are all too frequently accomplished by means of puffed-up, vacuous abstractions. When Emerson said ‘Cut these words and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive,’ wasn’t he expressing this categorical condemnation of anemic abstractions by genuine philosophers?
Why does ‘Mistress Truth’ simultaneously spark and spook pseudo-philosopher/psychologists and squeamish pretenders? Mightn’t her apocryphal character as a slithery slut (who nevertheless has a mind—and pudenda—of her own) both baffle and tickle the wills of impotent poseurs who vainly set off to woo and ‘top’ her? And if there is some truth to Truth’s notoriety for ‘lightness,’ wouldn’t this be enough to scare away any possessive fool who imagines he can stop her from slipping into a rival’s bed as soon as she’s seen and sampled what’s he’s got between his…ears? No, I suspect it is only authentic philosophers who raise and ponder such questions—and the last thing they would call such questions is abstract!
Even a brute or a self-respecting chimpanzee, if given a choice between supple Egyptian cotton fabric or a sheet of prickly burlap, would probably select the cloth with the finer texture. Strangely enough, many a homo sapiens, if given the same option, would take the coarse burlap—not believing themselves worthy of the superior cloth.
Here we come upon one of the most fundamental (if perhaps least discussed and explored) criteria to which the philosopher defers in his/her work-play as a creative-destructive thinker: texture. The texture of thoughts, feelings, and speech pertains primarily to the degree of subtlety or coarseness of that thought, feeling, or speech. Quality, as with my textile analogy, lies ever in the direction of the subtle—and away from the gross, bulky, or coarse—in large part because of the greater elasticity and nuance that accompany subtilization. This law or principle applies on all planes: material-practical, ethereal, emotional, intellectual-rational, imaginative-intuitive, religious.
In the realm of consciousness, ‘spiritualization’ is enabled by progressively moving from a lower to a higher frequency, while consciousness may be said to undergo a kind of concretization and literalization as it moves to lower and ever lower frequencies. When someone consumes an excessive amount of alcohol or swallows sleeping pills, brain activity is nudged towards the lower, slower end of the mental vibratory range and the person feels torpid, sluggish, and mentally muffled. Thinking and feeling, judging and maneuvering, all become clumsier and cruder under such ‘reduced’ terms and conditions.
The subtilization of the texture of consciousness (or cognition) is a governing aim and defining practice for the dedicated philosopher, psychologist, artist, saint, statesman, etc. Nevertheless, this drive to raise the frequency of consciousness is coupled with a parallel, but very different drive to expand the horizons of awareness, sensitivity, perception, and compassion. If this counter-balancing drive towards expansion is not a prominent feature of the philosopher’s mental activity, he is likely to be more susceptible to the seductions of some snug and cozy cul-de-sac of specialization. When a thinker succumbs to some narrowly circumscribed area of specialization, his prospects as a philosopher are quickly and quietly strangled to death. The true philosopher is, by definition, a comprehensive thinker. Wisdom entails breadth as well as depth and detail.
The quest to become an accomplished expert in some particular art, science, or sub-discipline—areas of specialization—typically poses a threat to the holistic, comprehensive thinking that befits the philosopher. On the other hand, the philosopher is no mere polymath—a clever bloke who, like a ‘jack of all trades, master of none,’ knows just a little about everything. Rather, he is more likely to know just enough from the various branching, ramified arts and sciences to grasp something of their distinctive essence. This must then be meaningfully assimilated into an organic, living vision of the whole, or totality—an unattainable target that is never reached but constantly aimed at. The philosopher is not the equivalent of an award-winning contestant on ‘Jeopardy’ or some other ‘trivial pursuit’ quiz show. He looks upon mavens and specialists, experts and connoisseurs, with a mixture of good-humored indulgence and muzzled contempt—only because the present age so commonly mistakes context-less information for sound knowledge, data-mongerers for men of wisdom, technocrats for sages. The philosopher knows better. He knows differently.
So, if we factor earlier critical observations concerning bloated, frothy abstractions—the hollow counterfeits or simulacra of authentically achieved breadth and capaciousness—into our present remarks concerning myopic specialization, we begin to glimpse the balancing act in which the genuine philosopher is continuously engaged. It is precisely from this harmonization or vital equilibrium between comprehensiveness and sharpness of vision that the coveted texture of genuine philosophical thinking is gradually achieved. These constitute the warp and the woof of the rich weave of philosophical insight. In an image I have used elsewhere, the mind of the philosopher—when functioning at its height—is like a zoom lens that can maneuver between a synoptic, birds-eye view of the whole panoramic sweep and an microscopically detailed view of a gnat’s innards—with no loss of detail at any point in between!
Obviously such maneuverability is an ideal that is impossible to attain except for fleeting moments here and there by the most extraordinary and select minds. And what will such ‘wooers of wisdom’ tell us about these fleeting, overwhelming moments of unearthly insight—if they are honest? Will they not admit that, though they have labored tirelessly in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, the light that makes such moments of blinding illumination possible comes from ‘God knows where?’ The mere suggestion that it is only neuro-chemical reactions occurring in soulless brains randomly selected through countless mutations is not only ridiculous—but somehow profoundly insulting to the orienting light itself!
There is no getting around the aesthetic dimension (or aspect) of texture and quality, those reliable signposts that assure the genuine philosopher that he is moving, mentally, in the proper direction—in his daily-resumed quest for insight into the ‘nature of things.’ Certainly, an aesthetic response entails feeling—and the deeper the insight that is being glimpsed or digested, the profounder the feeling response is likely to be. The beauty and power of philosophical insights almost always produce feelings of pleasure in the mind or soul of the speculative thinker.
Of course, this species of mental delight is of a different order than the more familiar sensual, sentimental, and personal pleasures sought and enjoyed by the multitude. How are the pleasures of philosophical thought and speculation essentially different from these more commonly-occurring pleasures? Perhaps the chief difference lies in the peculiar fact that there is something markedly impersonal—and even de-personalizing—about them. For those who are new to the de-personalizing pleasures of serious philosophical or dialectical thinking and ‘insighting,’ the experience can be as unsettling as it is thrilling—like skydiving, spelunking, or deep-sea diving are for the first time. There is certainly a sense of exhilaration—and of awe—that accompanies the ‘high’ (of the ‘higher cogitations’) of the philosopher in his privileged moments of illumination. Thus, the terms ‘pleasant’ and ‘pleasurable’ fail to do justice to the experience, which always has something sublime about it. It is the sublime element in these moments of transcendent-immanent insight that accounts for two additional features of interest surrounding deep philosophical experience: 1) We see here the implicit connection between serious philosophizing and authentic religious, or spiritual, experience, and 2) we see that all such experiences have something cold or chilling about them.
This coldness—to put it bluntly—is due to the presence of spirit when such experiences blow through us, and the spirit has traditionally (and rightfully) been likened to a cold, all-penetrating, electrically-charged wind (pneuma). Here we also see the necessary connection to de-personalization, since the all-pervasive, utterly impersonal spirit exposes and re-values everything merely ‘human’ and ‘personal’ about us (and everyone else, for that matter). Few are able to withstand so stark, clinical, and dispassionate a vision of their own and others’ insignificance, nescience, and creaturely helplessness. All our frailties, delusions, and blind spots are mercilessly exposed in such exhilarating, chilling—and immensely daring!—moments of game-changing honesty with ourselves.
Bearing these thoughts in mind, it should now be plainly evident that spiritual and moral courage play as large a role in the philosopher’s bracing encounters with the illusion-shattering spirit as keen powers of intellect do—if not a larger one. Keen powers of driven intellect may very well deliver the aspiring philosopher or psychologist to the brink or verge of discovery—but they cannot make him leap from that lonely cliff into the transfiguring mystery that sprawls before him—and within him. The courage that is required for such a leap is not the foolhardy rashness of the wild teenager but the sober, stoical courage of mature experience. It is bravery that has been gradually forged and distilled after many inoculating encounters with the clarifying, illusion-scattering spirit. Such repeatedly suffered blasts have gradually stripped away the fatuous and innocent human hopes for a way around or beyond precisely this ‘face to face’ encounter with one’s personal irrelevance and ‘momentariness.’ This is the high price exacted from those—always few in number—who would give up their very lives to be granted a glimpse or two of what’s really going on behind the curtain.
Supposing…just supposing…that you, reading now, have been arrested by these words, charged with these outrageous allegations, sentenced by these sentences, and sufficiently convicted to have been carried over the aforementioned brink and into the abyss where neither being nor non-being have any further significance or meaning. What value can words, concepts, or images possibly have now? Aren’t even the sturdiest and most durable life jackets and ‘flotation devices’ worthless against that truly universal solvent, spirit? What about texture now? What about quality? How do they hold up against the freezing, freeing, flaying blasts of spirit-wind? They don’t. All bets are off where odds and evens, sixes and sevens, merge and converge.
If we paddle back upstream a ways, we may be able to learn what happened to those valued indicators and orienters, texture and quality. Texture and quality pertain to materials—physical, mental, imaginal—but lose all relevance in the chilly, dimensionless realm of pure, formless awareness—about which nothing (meaningful or binding) can be said. The subtlest, most rarefied expressions of texture and quality are found in soul—that mercurial middle principle that bridges spirit and matter, or Father and Mother. Anthropos—‘man’—the child of this archetypal union, is the embodier and carrier of soul or imagination, par excellence. The highest exemplars of soul and of the Anthropos are the philosopher, the saint, and the poet—and each of them is a jealous guardian of quality. For the philosopher, it is the quality or texture of the contemplative vision that is most sacred of all. For the saint, it is the quality of love or compassion. For the artist-poet, it is the quality of beautiful forms and meanings.
Soul, though subtler than matter, is nevertheless concerned with forms (imaginal forms)—and is thereby superseded by spirit, which utterly transcends all forms, all conditions, all change, time, and space. Man partakes of all three—and each of us in varying proportions at any given time. All forms are transitory and, therefore, unreal when contrasted with simple matter and pure spirit, which are eternal, changeless, unborn. All that is born must die—and all that can be seen and felt and cherished must, soon enough, be sacrificed and forgotten. But something there is behind ‘you,’ behind ‘me’—that is both one and the same source of ‘you’ and of ‘me’—but happily indifferent to the imagined concerns, attachments, plans, longings, and torments that move us like isolated pawns across the chessboard of life.
There is perhaps no more befitting mood than the bittersweet, elegiac one when writing to the human person about its own reabsorption, once and for all, back into the source that dreamed it up in the first place: ‘bitter,’ for all the obvious reasons; ‘sweet,’ because such musings place us clearly in mind of just how terribly privileged we are simply to be witness to all this—if only for the sudden blink of an eye.
 Senex and Puer: The new does not so much lie ahead or elsewhere as deeper into that which is always already present. Thus, the new is timeless. May this not also be said of the old?