Cloaks and Daggers (7/1/11)

I am put off a bit—as well, perhaps, I should be—by the gaminess of a great philosopher like Plato, even if I confess to finding much pleasure in unlocking the secrets and hidden insights buried in—or inferable from—the dialogues. I mention Plato, but I might just as well have mentioned Heraclitus or Lao-tzu, Shakespeare or Bacon, Spinoza or Nietzsche, Montaigne or Joyce. All of them were expert gamesmen in their writing. Should Jung—and perhaps even Hillman—be included in this elite class of artful purveyors of recondite truths and unpopular insights?

Some voice inside me cries out ‘Why not simply say what you mean to say as clearly and plainly as you can?’ All gaminess would come to a screeching halt if such plain-speaking had been adopted from the start. There would be far fewer places to hide today if the greatest truth-finders had also been the plainest of truth-sayers. But of course if Nietzsche (and others who have voiced much the same idea) was onto something when he spoke of the ‘true but deadly’ ideas of the genuine philosophers, we can begin to understand why Plato (and according to Seth Benardete, the great epic poets and tragedians before him) wrote in a less than completely candid manner—and why his principal alter ego, Socrates, is ‘ironic’ much of the time. Philosophy can die out, perhaps, as some have claimed, if it is not properly sheltered from those—always in the majority—who prefer soothing fictions to ‘deadly truths’ and disturbing insights. But we truth-seekers have a moral obligation—imposed by our intellectual consciences and our psychological courage—not to stop at the gamy surface, but to allow the barbs and daggers hidden within these outwardly delightful and playful works to sting and to pierce our sensitized innards. Only thus will we earn the right to meet our spiritual kin—our (usually) long-dead ancestors who are writing specifically to us—their scattered, scant progeny—across the centuries.

On Dialectic and Rhetoric (10/18/15)

I realize how important it is to overcome the mind’s natural tendency to be charmed into obedience or assent by eloquence, by flattery directed towards our wishes and prejudices, and by rhetoric. Rigorous dialectic has something very un-charming and dis-illusioning about it. It cuts through the beautiful flesh of eloquence in order to reveal the musculature and skeletal structure (or lack thereof) hiding below the fetching, distracting, and often misleading surface. As such, dialectical thinking is perhaps intrinsically ruthless, painful, and disturbing. And yet it is essential to the quest for the truth precisely because its task is to flay the thick layers of skin and flab that normally conceal more than they reveal of the truth that lies at a deeper, subtler level of experience. With such gruesome images in mind, it should come as no surprise that Socrates was feared and detested by those in his midst who deeply resented having their piss-poor innards and frothy pretentions unveiled and publicly displayed by that peerless old vivisectionist of souls. Only the toughest and most sincere lovers of truth would have welcomed—or willingly withstood—such a torturous unmasking. Apollodorus—who is presented in the Symposium as semi-misanthropic despiser of himself and of everyone else but Socrates—may have been just such a toughened and dis-illusioned candidate for philosophical self-enquiry, if not an altogether flattering portrait of one.

We might wonder: Was not Plato, in attempting to beautify philosophy, behaving as an even more audacious ironist than Socrates? Does he not, in fact, ‘meta-ironically’ employ Socrates’ irony as a lightning rod to absorb and deflect far more serious charges from himself? Wasn’t Nietzsche justifiably suspicious—if not flatly dismissive—of Plato’s equation of ‘truth, beauty, and goodness’?

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If, from the standpoint of ordinary human expectations, preferences, and desires, the unvarnished truth concerning the fundamental questions of human life is ugly, then doesn’t it follow that beauty and truth can only coincide or converge for the philosopher who has dialectically ascended the ladder of understanding to a vantage point high above the normal (‘interested’ or desire-infused) human perspective? Such a person would necessarily have transcended those run-of-the-mill expectations, preferences, and desires before truth could be purged of the ugliness it necessarily possesses for the resistant non-philosopher. Is it possible that seductive beauty and off-putting ugliness cancel each other out in the neutral but vital contentment of the philosopher whose perspective has transcended this familiar pair of opposites?

If we allow ‘eros’ to stand (or substitute) for philosophy—or even philosophical insight—we see (at 201e in the Symposium) that Diotima clears up the ‘dichotomy’ in Socrates’ mind by asking him, “Do you believe that whatever is not beautiful must necessarily be ugly?” Eros, like philosophy, turns out to be something neither good nor bad, beautiful nor ugly, but something ‘in between.’

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The final chapter of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

 

True words are not beautiful;

Beautiful words are not true.

A good man does not argue;

He who argues is not a good man.

A wise man has no extensive knowledge;

He who has extensive knowledge is not a wise man.

The Sage does not accumulate for himself.

The more he uses for others, the more he has for himself.

The more he gives to others, the more he possesses of his own.

The way of Heaven is to benefit others and not to injure.

The way of the Sage is to act but not to compete.

Lao Tzu’s words (which, after all these centuries, still startle) echo the observation concerning Plato’s ‘beautification’ of philosophy—and Nietzsche’s astute rejection of Plato’s equation of truth-beauty-goodness. Plato could purge his Republic of the poets, but it took all the disappointments of a long, uncannily circumspect and irreproachably honest life to silence the beautifying poet in himself, as we see in the later dialogues, which are models of logical-lexical rigor. (And, despite himself, Nietzsche doesn’t seem to have had any more luck along these same lines than Plato did…although if he had lived longer, who knows? Perhaps he, too, would have eventually seen through and tamed the Circe of intoxicating eloquence.)

Perhaps beauty—like pleasure—pertains to the inherently preferential individual ego, but—like ugliness and displeasure—are matters of indifference and irrelevance to the truly liberated spirit. In becoming liberated from the ‘ego and its own,’ doesn’t the spirit transcend all those preferences, desires, fears, and concept-convictions that define, bind, and drive individual ego-consciousness?

Giving the Spirit the Respect it’s Due: a Note on Tolstoy (11/06)

Tolstoy’s preposterously perverse (and delightfully hilarious) claim that Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was a finer work of literature than Shakespeare’s King Lear has (since its declaration in his 1897 essay, “What is Art?”) provoked more sound and fury than insight into his hidden meaning. Tolstoy’s seemingly unjust belittlement of Shakespeare’s genius (and his elevation of Stowe’s moralistic novel to such exalted status) has been attributed to the Count’s envy of the bard, or to his stubborn preference for ‘moral’ art over what he took to be Shakespeare’s reluctance to cast more definitive moral judgment upon his characters. And while there is no doubt a measure of truth in such attempts to account for Tolstoy’s outrageous and peculiar remark, I’m not sure they satisfactorily resolve this mysterious matter.

It should first be recalled that in his later years, Tolstoy’s practical and philosophical asceticism was carried to such an extreme that he effectively renounced his entire previous literary output—the work of one of the supreme artists in the history of world literature. Few novelists have given the world such rich offerings as came from the prolific pen of this great lover—and keen observer—of humanity. If anyone can be said to have understood and to have appreciated the enormous value of art for life—from the inside out, so to speak—Tolstoy did, as Shakespeare had before him.

If we can provisionally agree that the marvelous creations of literary genius come to us from the province of the soul, or imagination—and the peculiarly anti-worldly virtues of asceticism come from the austere and purified spirit, then perhaps we place ourselves in a better position to approach Tolstoy’s quarrel with Shakespeare—as well as his near-rejection of his own imaginative creations—from a deeper psychological perspective than those typically entertained.

I would suggest that what we are up against in Tolstoy’s roundabout disparagement of the imagination (or, more precisely, an imagination that is not ultimately beholden to ‘Christian’ morality) is the perhaps unavoidable tension between spirit, as such, and soul, regarded here as the reflective and imaginative mediatrix between spirit and body. The tension, from the perspective of spirit, arises because the imagination, by its very nature, seduces the spirit out of its detached, isolated unity, down from its imageless altitude and purity—back into ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil,’ as it were—the tragicomedy of the human-all-too-human. Tolstoy’s asceticism, like all genuine forms of asceticism, aimed chiefly at transcendence, at complete and pure renunciation of all binding (and blinding) attachments. My sneaking suspicion is that the most stubbornly tenacious attachment of all for Tolstoy was his attachment to his work as an imaginative artist. (We must be grateful for the ‘lapses,’ in his old age, from this austere suspension of his literary work—when his genius got the better of him, and, as a result, we have an extraordinary novella like the wonderful Hadji Murat to delight in.) To the very end, in spite of his unquestionably sincere efforts to transcend his former self, he remained an artist through and through. The swipe he makes at Shakespeare is perhaps best taken as the index of his frustration over being unable altogether to change his own spots.

It is worth noting that in Shakespeare’s final play, Prospero throws his book of spells and magic incantations into the sea after striking the ‘magical isle’ stage set he has previously conjured. But then Shakespeare, too, seems to have been unable to completely sever his long and vitalizing connection with the London theater, as we know from his subsequent collaborations.

Perhaps the deepest hindrance that stood in the way of Tolstoy’s efforts to become thoroughly ‘spiritual’ or ‘transcended’ rested in his ultimate inability to decisively move ‘beyond good and evil’—as Nietzsche may very possibly have done, if only in episodic, discontinuous spurts of precarious ecstasy. His thoroughly humane and compassionate nature, and not merely his infinitely fertile imagination, prevented him, ironically, from abstracting his mind and attention completely into the realm of cold, pure spirit, where all attachments must first be incinerated before permanent residence is permitted.

 

A Man-ner of Fish (12/15)

For me, earnest thinking may be likened to conjuring spirits or fishing for leviathans from the deep. When commencing to think or write, only rarely do I already have a ‘fish’ on the line, unless it’s a shiny minnow meant to attract the attention of more massive or intriguing marine creatures. Here I have pointed to the difference between imaginative/intuitive thinking and discursive/analytical thinking. To be sure, both have their dignified place in the vast and intricate economy of multi-tiered cerebrations—but I have long felt a deeper affinity for the former speculative-imaginative sort.

Unlike that ‘fisher of men’ from the last aeon, I am a ‘man-ner of fish.’ ‘Fish,’ in this instance, stands (or swims?) for those silver-finned, darting and diving, seminal ideas which inwardly yearn to become part of man’s ‘gray matter.’ Thus, I (and my ‘ancient mariner’ kin) venture out upon moonlit seas, beneath which our tutelary spirits glide and drift and surge—devouring and being devoured—all of us alike in that respect. These are the fish that dream of ‘becoming man’—and it is the vocation and privilege of fisher-men to lure these voluntary sacrifices to shore for others to carve up and portion out as they deem fit. Thus, in the truest sense, it is our peculiar destiny to remain ‘middle-men’ or ‘go-betweens’—bawds, if you like—and I don’t mind admitting that there is something more than a little ‘fishy’ about such work…and such workers. And yet, as fishy as it smells to those who have never been pulled out to sea by a fierce undertow, this lonesome-malodorous vocation may very well prove more honest and above board than all dry and fragrant forms of work.

On how my Self-Education has stamped my Writing and Thinking (9/09)

What follows will no doubt sound like a bizarre confession. It pertains to my style of expressing ideas that are potentially disturbing to ‘uninitiated,’ innocent minds. Because of the ‘from the ground up’ character of my spiritual and psychological education, I feel entitled (for reasons I cannot easily or adequately articulate) to speak with a degree of bluntness about delicate issues that are usually treated with greater caution, delicacy, or flat-out avoidance by thinkers who either regard themselves as having descended from an elite pedigree or who have in fact been groomed and polished within the cultivated ranks, with all the advantages and prerogatives that come with that privileged (and, if genuine, invariably earned) descent.

My case bears a faint resemblance to that of Rousseau in the sense that I am almost entirely self-educated, with respect to formal schooling. But why, it will be asked, should this designation as autodidactic thinker and writer induce (or even oblige) me to speak more candidly and baldly than those who were ‘to the manor born’? Is it perhaps because I feel that my own efforts—as well as my own findings—are somehow less hampered by uninviting academic conventions, off-putting terminology, and constraints? Does my having eluded, to a great extent, these guiding, formative influences allow for a certain natural cohesion in my thinking that compensates for my lack of scholarly erudition and my indifference to the strict guidelines of academic publications? If my thinking and writing do benefit in any noticeable way from my autodidacticism, I would say that they possess the virtue of having grown slowly and undisturbedly from a strong single root: that root is my natural curiosity concerning the origins and interconnections of cultural phenomena—ideas, values, works of art and faith—with my own personality providing the soil and vessel in which these cultural seeds have been planted and in which they continue to grow.

What I do not feel—or feel very strongly—is some obligation to simplify or prettify what I uncover for the minds and hearts of readers who perhaps have not struggled so uninterruptedly to get closer to the bottom of these things. I do not hold the belief (which seems to be cherished by most members of the intellectual priesthood or academic elite) that such hard-won truths should remain guild secrets, and that they should remain hidden from that segment of the public that possesses a modicum of leisure, education, and freedom from the ignorance and compulsion that generally afflicts the poor and semi-literate masses who are ruled for the most part by necessity and external authority. Our disturbed and unexplored psyches may have brought us to the brink of cultural meltdown, and I would argue that it will only be through improved understanding of the psyche that we stand a chance of avoiding a collective slide over that fateful brink.

Because my cultural-philosophical education was not provided in top-notch, ready-made form by celebrated professors at elite private schools and the best universities, but has been carried out largely by my own lights and through my own efforts, I have emerged from this lengthy (and ongoing) process of self-education with a different attitude towards learning than my more formally educated brethren display—especially those who, from youth onwards, have been groomed within the preeminent schools and universities.

I find it difficult, for instance, to write and think very deeply or imaginatively about topics, events, persons, and ideas that do not resonate in some direct way with my innermost nature. This is not to suggest for a moment that such topics, events, persons, and ideas are not worthy of serious concern or attention—just not from me, for I would certainly not be able to do them proper justice—and give them their due. No doubt, the array of particular themes I feel suited by nature to explore is thus limited in ways that would unduly constrain a successful professional journalist or career writer (who is not a mere specialist). Nevertheless, I take some comfort in the fact that my writing and thinking seldom ring false since they emerge, spontaneously, from the roots of my personality. I may be perceived as a deluded fool or an alarmist; I may appear to be preoccupied (or obsessed) with the same handful of linked questions, but I don’t think it can be claimed with any justice that my writing and my thinking are not authentically expressive of my inner and outer experience.

I don’t presume to speak for others—or to be conveying any universally binding truths or moral principles in my writings—but this has never been my aim. My aim is similar, I believe, to that of other essayists who have preceded me—and in whose giant footsteps I modestly follow. I’m thinking chiefly of Montaigne and to a lesser extent of Emerson (where the truly grand and the slightly grandiloquent sometimes become blended and confused). I am thinking of the ‘confessions’ of self-examiners like Augustine and Rousseau, La Rochefoucauld and Nietzsche—persons who struggled—often stumbling along the way—towards some kind of honest and penetrating testimony about life from where they stood—or where they were swimming, falling, dancing, warring, pleading, drowning, convulsing, etc.