On Nietzsche’s Captivating Rhetoric (1/31/18)

When a writer regularly employs such flagrantly attention-getting language – the sorts of stylistic and button-pushing literary tactics that virtually anyone who can read will often find irresistible – we have to wonder what kind of audience he is trying to reach with such pyrotechnical prose, and what he wants to do with them once he’s got their attention. Nietzsche, despite his “aristocratic,” anti-democratic views and values, is incongruously popular, from all I can tell. He appears to be more widely read and enjoyed (regardless of whether he is being properly understood) than most other philosophers. Plato often wrote beautifully and lucidly, but despite his enormous influence, it would be stretching things to say that he is popularly read, even when selections from the Apology, the Symposium, and the Republic are required reading in most prep schools and honors programs. The same may be said of Aristotle, Machiavelli, Bacon, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and that other truly great stylist, Schopenhauer.

Socrates seems (from Plato’s “artfully” recorded dialogues with him as the central figure) to have tailored his speeches to the particular qualities of the person he was addressing. Nietzsche says he selects his proper reader through his technique of scaring away all but his rightful audience, but he seems to have underestimated his charm – or overestimated his power to “scare” away the wrong or unready readers.

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The Spiritual, Moral/Political, and Judicious/Pedagogical Use of Words (8/21/12)

How is it that I am able to justify placing the spiritual life—as I have slowly come to understand it—on a higher rung of importance than the life dedicated primarily to moral and political justice, as Hedges and Chomsky—who are admirable men—do? It is because I have learned that the practice of moral and political justice in my own life—the only life I have a measure of direct influence over—is overshadowed and subsumed by my practice of the spiritual, or contemplative life. What this means is that, so far as I can see, the best way I can contribute to moral and political justice in my social and political surroundings is to strive to maintain a relatively disinterested, poised state of spiritual centeredness. As long as I am centered and balanced in this way, I am not compelled by powerful anger, resentment, desire, fear, and other emotions that naturally prompt humans to go to war ‘for’ this and ‘against’ that—to take sides in some kind of struggle between an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’ There will, it seems, always be contending groups and embattled individual egos in the world of ordinary human affairs and the moment we take one side we enter into a potentially hostile dynamic with the other. The various pairs of opposites that appear to be composed of warring or antagonistic factions are essentially (and un-apparently or invisibly) gapless continua, not split dualisms. But in order to see—and to genuinely experience—this underlying unity beneath the apparent strife we must manage somehow to mentally transcend the dualistic or oppositional paradigm—as Arjuna does, under Krishna’s wise supervision, in the Bhagavad Gita. Of course, the simple Christian utterance which is so difficult to practice—namely, ‘Love your enemy’—is a kind of mantra, the intended purpose of which is to break the oppositional, ‘us versus them,’ mode of seeing and feeling. Alas, this is the normal mode of seeing and feeling among human beings. Consequently, the teachings of Christ and the Buddha are widely, though often privately, regarded by humans as ‘insanely’ unrealistic, and even dangerously deluded in the sort of world that we actually inhabit (one that is full of hypocritical Christians and lip-service Buddhists), while from the transcendental, centered standpoint, dogs—or even dogs and cats together in the same room—often provide a better example of how to get on in the world than most human animals can manage.

Since I am fully aware that I cannot change other persons’ minds and hearts simply by preaching to them or by apprising them of their blindness and their unacknowledged (or unconsciously projected) villainy, I am wary of moral crusades and political revolutions that aim to purge society and to right the wrongs of the unjust. Human beings simply don’t change inwardly (which is the only kind of change that matters) unless and until they are truly ready. This readiness depends on a number of factors—a capacity for honest reflection being perhaps the most important of these—but it cannot be forced or compelled from without. Unfortunately, another key ingredient to the getting of wisdom appears to be deep suffering—and no good-hearted person prays that such suffering will torment even those persons we don’t like or care for. And yet, we may have to accept the fact that their arrogant ignorance and selfishness will not likely be overcome by mere reason and reflection alone—but will need to be beaten out of them in the school of hard knocks.

It is for this reason that I have gradually come to regard preaching and sermonizing as a comparatively crude way of contributing to the social harmony, political justice, and moral goodness of our surroundings. I have found that when I am able to reflect deeply, temper my own passions, and refrain from ‘us versus them’ thinking, I am in the best position to ‘teach without using words,’ as the old Taoists used to say. And yet, because I feel very much at home with words, it’s not likely that I will ‘shut up’ anytime soon. Perhaps, instead of attempting to ‘teach without using words,’ I will just have to settle for ‘writing between the lines.’

Some Thoughts about Esoteric Writing (3/28/11)

I was reading earlier from Laurence Lampert’s essay about Leo Strauss (‘The Recovery of Esoteric Writing’) and from Strauss himself (concerning Xenophon’s willingness to appear stupider than he was—for the rest of recorded time—in order to conceal his true thoughts behind a mask). Lampert’s intriguing essay opens with Strauss’s 1938-39 discovery of Maimonides’ use of esoteric writing strategies as a way of appearing to be an orthodox Jew while in fact he was a genuine philosopher who fully understood that reason and monotheistic theology (and the morality built upon its dubious foundations) were in fundamental conflict. This momentous discovery of Strauss’s—that this sacrosanct, foundational figure in Judaism was in fact pretending to believe what he did not actually subscribe to—led (through Averroes) back to the Greeks—Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and, most importantly, to Plato, whose influence over western civilization has been incalculable.

A few of the ‘truths’ (about how these genuinely philosophical Greeks saw nature and the human situation) may be listed:

  1. Death ends everything; personal immortality is no more than a consoling myth to give courage to the hoi polloi, who are too fainthearted to stomach the ‘deadly’ truth.
  2. Genuine philosophy (logos), because it is repugnant and hated by the many (‘the city’), must be sheltered by salutary stories (mythos) if it is to survive through time. The code word for this in Strauss is ‘Platonizing.’
  3. The few genuine philosophers were not interested in politics, per se, but in truth, which is both sobering and intoxicating to them, but ‘deadly’ and demoralizing to the many. It was this tension which gave rise to political philosophy, the aim of which was to shelter philosophy from the city and the city from philosophy.

Strauss—in his early study of Plato’s Laws—saw that the philosopher rightly understood that morality’s authority is founded not upon reason, or logos, but upon religion (mythos) for the many. Consequently, genuine philosophers (who, as Nietzsche says, are ‘commanders and legislators’) must prudently make use of religion in their ‘philanthropic’ campaigns to lead mankind in a salutary direction. It is their love of the human that motivates genuine philosophers in this philanthropic activity. In Lampert’s view, Bacon, Descartes, and Nietzsche were three such ‘philanthropic’ genuine philosophers. Bacon and Descartes both practiced esoteric writing in their ground-breaking campaigns to lead humanity (by way of their sympathetic, alert readers) in the new direction it has taken under their powerful influence. Nietzsche—believing that several hundred years of scientific skepticism and critical thinking (among the educated classes in the West) had prepared humanity for a more honest and frank disclosure of truths that have been kept under wraps since ancient times—dispensed with the ‘Platonizing’ and the ‘noble lies’ that have heretofore reigned over Western culture.

A brief challenge occurred during the Renaissance, but the Protestant Reformation (a popular uprising, a ‘herd’ phenomenon, according to Nietzsche) restored the sovereignty of ‘after-worldly’ Christianity (‘Platonism for the people’). It is primarily this quasi-ascetic, ‘after-worldly’ metaphysical delusion that Nietzsche seeks to uproot, deride, and overcome—a delusion shared by millions—and which profoundly obstructs and hampers humanity’s love of the earth, of this world—the only world, as far as Nietzsche is concerned. We have forsaken and betrayed our true and only homeworld by swallowing and being swindled by this metaphysical-epistemological ruse that devalues the actual world in favor of some ‘true’ and ‘transcendent’ one that only exists in our duped imaginations.

So, Plato and Nietzsche (and, for that matter, all genuine philosophers who have uncovered the ‘truth about beings’ and have faced that sobering truth with reason) are in fundamental agreement about ‘the way of things,’ but because ‘times have changed’ in crucial respects since Plato composed his dialogues, Nietzsche decided to take the gamble of lifting the veil that his predecessors had kept over ‘Isis.’ Plato—who learned this from Socrates’ fate—reckoned that ‘the many’ (non-philosophers) were not ready to receive and to withstand the truths uncovered by natural (unaided) reason without succumbing to wanton immorality and despair. Therefore, he prudently (and seductively) painted a picture of philosophy (in the portrait of the martyred Socrates) that was benign, fascinating, and salutary—rather than starkly sobering and subversive of conventional values, norms, and beliefs. Such an enormous undertaking demanded extraordinary skill and a depth of understanding seldom equaled in the history of western culture, for Plato had to work in the service of two diametrically opposed aims within the individual works he was devising: he had to console and mollify those (weaker and more tender-minded) readers who required salutary lies in order to make life worth living, while at the same time he was providing hints, clues, and piercing questions that might lead his stronger and more resourceful readers (like Nietzsche and Strauss) to radically different (opposite) opinions—nay, truthful insights into reality, the human situation, and the actual order of things.

A problem with Nietzsche’s ‘anti-Christian’ concerns about our nihilistic, ‘after-worldly’ neglect of this world is that this simply does not accord with the facts of life for many, perhaps most educated persons living today. Few persons I know agonize over the question of an afterlife—and whatever people think (or don’t think) about our post-mortem fates, it doesn’t seem to get in the way of their engrossed, enthralled—I am tempted to add ‘ensnared’—condition vis-à-vis this world, the mundane, matter of fact world of the here and now. The problem is not that people—or most people here and even in Asia—suffer from a flimsy allegiance to, or blocked connection with, this world (the apparent world of here and now) because they are fearfully or deludedly preoccupied with concerns about ‘the next life.’ ‘Educated’ persons often regard those who subscribe to that old story as throwbacks to pre-modern times. They are the butt of jokes and sneers. A much larger chunk of the general population is exceedingly immersed in the pleasures and pains, the concerns and opportunities, presented by this world. Nietzsche got much closer to the way things are now in his scathing portrait of ‘the last man’ in Zarathustra. Those pathetic, trivial flea-beetle couch potatoes are very much this-worldlings, not after-worldlings. But the quality of their connection to the earth—and to this world of the here and now—is just as shallow, insipid, and pitiful as their equally barbaric and unimpressive ancestors’ connection with the ‘spiritual’ world often appears to have been. The problem—in either direction—toward the realm of the spirit or towards the earth—concerns the quality of the connection.

Midwifery (1/26/11)

If a writer focuses diligently upon themes and questions that are of essential concern to thinking human beings—and he writes with a modicum of deftness and clarity—his works will be assured of finding an appreciative reading audience. Such works—and we have plenty of examples of them—perform the refreshing service of scraping the non-essential questions and peripheral themes right off our plates, leaving only the lightly seasoned meat and potatoes. Such thinkers and writers about fundamental human questions are attractive to readers who are interested primarily in nutrition for their minds—‘whole food’ for thought—and not chiefly in exotic fruits, over-rich sauces, and sugar-filled desserts.

Rather than coming away from such books feeling stuffed, the grateful reader feels lighter, leaner, and more vitalized than before he or she sat down to read. This is because good, essential questions—well formulated and carefully followed—do not add bulk and excess fat to the reader’s mind but, in vigorously exercising it, help to burn off psychic lipids and to release accumulated mental toxins. It is not principally for answers, then, that readers come to such writings, but for those clear and caustic questions which, like a strong acid, bore right through the layers of torpor and inertia into the molten cores of our encrusted minds. Once these penetrating questions have done their work, our own minds magically prove capable of providing answers on their own. The most we writers and thinkers can—and should—hope for is that our writings may prompt and encourage readers to follow, not us, but their own enkindled fires and guiding lights.

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.’

*****

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.