Rethink.

Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Page 3 of 180

In Memoriam T. S.

The boy I remember had the most natural of graces. His heart was large, his spirit continually active. If he was crude, forceful, or even a bit of a bully, it was because of the neighborhood kids and their broken views. He befriended them, sworn to help friends and harm enemies. He always meant well. I always enjoyed meeting him.

He had tremendous potential. He was brighter than I was, a quick study with evolved street smarts. He was sharp at games. I don’t know how good his Greek was or whether classes at the Orthodox church did much for him. I’m sure he picked up on quite a bit. He was a hard worker when younger, and when I stopped seeing him around, when I was at my high school and he was at his, I heard he was a very talented singer in choir. I know he was a hit with the ladies.

I am more understanding than ever before of the trap addiction and denial is. I know the strongest, smartest people banding together, wanting to change, struggle to defeat those demons. I know some of the people around him, while they made tremendous sacrifices, were doomed to fail in helping him fight his. There was the time a large butterfly landed on the back of his shirt and stayed there. It was beautiful and majestic in its ignorance. My dad tried to gently get it off, but it refused to budge. A friend of his fixed the issue by pushing it off with a broom and smashing it.

The only blame I assign in this situation is not to friends of his, but friends of mine. One in particular advised others to mind their own business when the situation screamed for anything else. It’s easy to drown others’ cries in what you assume knowledge, prudence, even morality. It’s a lot harder to admit that your selfishness and fear can make you hysterical, dangerous, and counterproductive.

I suspect that critique can extend to others he knew. In a way, there is only blame because the loss is so unnecessary, so damaging to all of us. I’ll never forget the time he begged me to be at his birthday party. He saw something in me and was happy to be with me. In those days, I was just awkward, talentless, spoiled and shallow. (I know – not much has changed.) I didn’t know anything except the paranoia of those older and my own greed. His friends, for all their faults, were much more gregarious, generous, assured. I had a blast with him, as I felt believed in.

Kay Ryan, “Wooden”

Wooden (h/t Tessa Hulls)
Kay Ryan

In the presence of supple
goodness, some people
grow less flexible,
experiencing a woodenness
they wouldn’t have thought possible.
It is as strange and paradoxical
as the combined suffering
of Pinocchio and Geppetto
if Pinocchio had turned and said,
I can’t be human after all.

Comment:

This poem is what I can’t say. I can say generally that I feel taken for granted. It’s true but generic and doesn’t indict anyone.

The poem, on the other hand, explores a boast and a related pain. “Supple goodness” is no less than showing gracefulness. To say it characterizes you, or that you help make it present, seems like insane bragging. But at some point, you know you’ve exhibited it. You know you’ve worked to put others at ease, you know you’ve achieved it at moments, you’ve seen them happier and heard their gratefulness and have good reasons you weren’t lied to.

And then it’s all over. Your “supple goodness” produces nothing for anyone. They’ve moved on, whether back to families, or to other friends, or to relationships or careers. And the kind of grace you manifested seems a colossal waste. What you were doing was not a lie, contrary to every thought in your head screaming otherwise.

Just as virtue depends on the existence of vice, our better traits encourage behaviors which in turn take them for granted. This is more than a cynical consequence. When you act one way well, you allow others to act differently, even as they seem to participate in your action. Complicating things infinitely: woodenness may not be a vice. It’s a kind of cementing in the way one way is, a kind of self-knowledge that willfully withdraws. It creates the conditions for certain graces to emerge, but it is what grace allows.

The end result is tragic, there’s no doubt about that. And this: grace didn’t replicate, but stayed itself, and that was the problem. The sadness is that things are known, and hard – if not impossible – to accept. Pinocchio deciding not to be human feels wrong to us, but in a way, it is true to his origin and Geppetto’s love for him. We can’t really accept that the perfection of a virtue could be that virtue’s very failure. Don’t virtues create good in the world? Don’t they make us better? Sort of. You can be the best person the world has ever known, and strictly speaking no good for anyone.

Adam Zagajewski, “Auto Mirror”

Auto Mirror (from A Book of Luminous Things)
Adam Zagajewski (tr. Czeslaw Milosz & Robert Hass)

In the rear-view mirror suddenly
I saw the bulk of the Beauvais Cathedral
great things dwell in small ones
for a moment.

Comment:

Striking, how this strikes. A massive, beautiful cathedral – the work of hundreds, if not thousands – appears for a moment.

The wrinkles building the drama are more than incidental. First, the speaker sees it in a “rear-view mirror,” “suddenly.” Going about his business, he has already passed the cathedral. It may not be possible to go back. It is probably not possible to seriously contemplate as he is driving. Taking him by surprise, it is a genuine combination of shock and awe.

A revelation of the Du mußt dein Leben ändern sort? That brings us to the second singularity: Beauvais is famous for not being finished. We are talking about a gigantic, amazing, perfect-in-its-own way work of man. The speaker glimpses the “bulk” of it; his own vision of the incomplete is incomplete.

We are brought to a third strangeness. “Great things dwell in small ones for a moment” – something about this experience was a whole, if only for a second. Maybe it was whole because it was momentary. Strictly speaking, all that happened was a building showed itself in a mirror. That is, on a literal level, the great thing in the small one.

It is certainly possible for the speaker to continue driving, like nothing happened. Or maybe he stops driving and changes his life. I couldn’t be bothered with this dualism. Another poem I read today was about how the expectations of love are too idealistic nowadays. The same things that break a relationship lead to trying to go one’s way merrily after it. It’s like all our choices have to be put in this moralistic cloak, where we always know better or become better no matter what choices we make. The only thing this process serves to do is reveal our pettiness. We want to be stronger than everything, and this starts looking really stupid when we consider how small some of our lives are at times. In a similar vein, I suspect that if we spoke about the speaker changing, we’d be reinforcing a cliche: his sensitivity to the cathedral would be tied to an automobile’s mirror.

Beauvais isn’t presented as dedicated to God or mighty and wondrous in its timelessness. It is a reflection of the efforts of many nameless others, as there seems to be an indirect contrast with the speaker’s “I,” the medieval and the modern. That’s the greatness, and it dwells in our speaker for a moment. Whether it is the seed of anything more, well – that depends on what they have to say.

Charles Simic, “Miracle Glass Co.”

Miracle Glass Co.
Charles Simic

Heavy mirror carried
Across the street,
I bow to you
And to everything that appears in you,
Momentarily
And never again the same way:

This street with its pink sky,
Row of gray tenements,
A lone dog,
Children on rollerskates,
Woman buying flowers,
Someone looking lost.

In you, mirror framed in gold
And carried across the street
By someone I can’t even see,
To whom, too, I bow.

Comment:

A mirror is carried across a street. For some reason, the speaker bows to it and composes this ode.

It looks like he sees himself in the mirror. But seeing yourself is seeing more than yourself. The mirror is “heavy,” weighted with more than just him (“everything that appears in you”). It not only captures objects, but time (“momentarily… [each object is] never again the same way”).

A reflection may be better than memory. It is situated in the present in a way memories aren’t. Memories can be loaded with the things we tell ourselves over and over again. They can distort our self-perception. To see a reflection, though, invites another problem. What one sees might not make any sense.

After all, our speaker locates himself as “lost.” This is after his vision moves from the sky (“sky, tenements”) to the ground (“dog”) to the things at eye level (“children, woman”), the things that resemble him. Those of his species are in motion, the sky and tenements are in their place. With the potential of motion, alone, his reflection leads him to a dog.

I think I can explain this poem’s intimations of divinity (“miracle,” “framed in gold,” bowing). Maybe I can even clarify the more general problem. The search to see yourself, to know your place in the world, requires that you try to see beyond yourself. This is possible, and you can get reflections that capture reality exactly. The problem is that you can barely do anything with these things; you’re like an animal trapped by the rationality you think you need.

Making things stranger is this: the effort is not without value. You’re in a situation where your own humanity is questionable, but you’re the one who questioned it. This invites the divine, as someone certainly stands above you (“someone I can’t even see”). We could say that God holds a mirror to us, and there’s an invitation to humility here, but that does not fit the tone of this poem. It’s more like you’re pursuing your own humanity and not quite realizing it. The miracle is that the speaker realizes that two someones – a reflection, a guy carrying the mirror across the street – are himself, not himself, and a complete mystery.

On learning of The Situation’s arrest in a tanning salon (or: Archaïscher Torso Apollos II)

for Ricky McAlister; recommended reading

Not the beauty
of a sonnet’s lines,
forming quietly.

Nor the excitement
of a campaign speech,
exploding wildly.

It is best seen
when Warhol’s fifteen
didn’t apply to Edie.

The warmth of his smile
with mention of her.

Twelfth Reflection: Sappho, “People do gossip”

People do gossip
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

People do gossip

And they say about
Leda, that she

once found an egg
hidden under

wild hyacinths

Comment:

They gossipped, wondering what the story was, passing judgment anyway. We might have just as much of the story they had. Probably less.

Oh well. What’s important is snark.

Leda’s story is weird. Zeus seduced her as a swan. Eggs resulted, the kind animals lay. Children, including Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra, came from the eggs. Making things more complicated is that Leda was involved with her mortal husband on the night she met the swan. Some of the children are mortal, some divine.

It’s a huge mess, but it’s neat that Barnard turned what could be rendered “they say” into a more emphatic “gossip.” You get the feeling that Sappho was reproducing something really catty, something like “Leda didn’t really attract both men and gods. She didn’t even lay eggs. She just found them while being around flowers way prettier than her.” The gossip could have a more general character. Some people get lucky in life. They get to marry royalty and traverse beautiful, wild fields. They’re in a realm inaccessible to us. Why shouldn’t they find an egg with a glorious, tragic future?

Ay, there’s the rub. Snarky gossip is a way of justifying our envy, our embrace of tragedy. Tragedy may be the truest way of depicting life, as there is no necessarily happy ending to it. But the appeal of the truth is not the truth itself. In Leda’s case, one has to be particularly blind to what happened to her in order to gossip.

David Foster Wallace, “McCain’s Promise”

1. $4 bought me a small book by David Foster Wallace about the Republican Presidential primaries in 2000. At one point, McCain was incensed that the Bush campaign did push polling (“Would you vote for McCain if you knew he…”) and stood with some kook accusing McCain of treating his fellow veterans like dirt post-Vietnam. So his team responded with a stunning bit of manufactured drama. A woman stood up during a town hall meeting with McCain and talked about how her son was turned off of politics and didn’t believe in heroes anymore. But then he and his parents noticed that McCain, an actual war hero, was running. The son got excited but then the evil Bush campaign called and said mean things while push polling and now the son was in crisis. McCain teared up a bit and called off the town hall meeting early. The woman made headlines.

DFW, for his part, was incredulous. Politicians and the media treat people like sheep, and it works. Maybe it works because many of us are too cynical to believe politics is anything other than this crap. The diehards, for their part, are looking for anything to say their man is boss. That’s my thought, though. DFW goes a different direction. Here you have a war hero, someone who refused to be let out of the Hanoi Hilton because he didn’t want to violate a Code. Here’s a guy whose whole appeal is that he was willing to die for a principle. Standing up for something so boldly is being as good as your word; it’s an honesty that dictates courage. And here’s the same guy engaging in a petty bit of spin in order to win a few votes.

DFW doesn’t put it this way, but here’s what we’re working with: Heroism can’t be sold. It’s funny to say that, given the conventional character of heroism. Aristotle points this out early in the Ethics, in his discussion of Achilles being courageous. Achilles can only think of himself as brave in regards to the expectations of the city. Even self-sacrifice has to be cast in terms of how one could be remembered. One can say that heroism is nothing but selling out of a sort – the only issue is to which cause.

2. Let’s try this again. McCain’s problem, McCain’s promise, for DFW: he is an actual hero. But he wants to be more of a political leader, and thus has to sell that heroism given our current environment. This gets complicated, as leaders are not just believed, as a salesman might be. They are believed in.

There’s something about heroism and leadership that cannot be reduced to gain. DFW talks about the inspiration a leader provides: “A leader’s true authority is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not in a resigned or resentful way but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, how you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you wouldn’t be able to if there weren’t this person you respected and believed in and wanted to please.”

He’s exactly correct in making such an impassioned statement. But we have been talking so far about the power of conventional expectation. There may be a courage when you don’t know exactly where you stand. The inspiration a leader provides might reflect a more natural phenomenon, one accounted for an entirely different way.

Of course, to talk about the natural is to talk on the one hand about philosophy, on the other about how life is actually lived. On that note, I’ve spent the last few months being whiny, saying dumb things to people, feeling like I’ve been taken for granted, not doing anything to prove I shouldn’t be taken for granted. That’s just as natural as philosophy. Man is the rational animal, and it is surprising we forget what is describing what in that formulation.

3. I forget exactly how this came about, but I was thinking recently of Socrates and Alcibiades. Alcibiades was one of the most ambitious and talented people the world has ever known. His goal was to have Athens defeat Syracuse and perhaps Carthage, becoming masters of the Mediterranean. Thucydides relates how he put a coalition together that nearly destroyed Sparta at little or no cost to Athens itself. His hubris was his downfall. During the campaign to capture Syracuse, he was falsely accused of a specific impious deed – in effect, a death sentence. He defected to Sparta, sleeping with the Spartan king’s wife while showing Sparta how to beat Athens. He eventually had to leave there, too. Xenophon depicts Alcibiades using Socratic rhetoric to show Pericles, no slouch as a leader himself, that he knows nothing.

In at least two dialogues, the Symposium and the Alcibiades, Plato shows Socrates trying to moderate Alcibiades. Alcibiades is young and handsome, though, and that subtext is not terribly quiet in the Symposium. He expresses his pain at his playing hard-to-get: Socrates won’t teach him everything he knows despite his advances, and as a consequence, he hasn’t become the person he wants to be yet. Nowadays, I think the question of Socrates teaching nobility reflects on Socrates himself. The question of loving him or learning from him turns into the question of Socrates simply. For Alcibiades, no matter how much he thinks he has a grasp on who Socrates is, there’s another person in there he hasn’t found.

Philosophic eros isn’t only a lust for knowledge. It also involves the philosopher being hard-to-get, seemingly composed of many beings. Golden statues of gods reside within an ugly exterior, Alcibiades says. For all practical purposes, though, the philosopher might as well be mutable. Philosophy is this strange combination of knowledge and self-knowledge where what one learns should better one from the inside out. Not external gain, but an attempted building of the self.

Still, the philosopher finds himself defined more by questions than answers. Exactly how stable a form he has – well, that’s a problem. At best, he’s like a container more than anything else. I don’t know this means that someone who pursues wisdom is unlovable, despite Socrates’ expressed hope in the Lysis for a friend. I do think it means that only the philosopher can appreciate where he stands at a given moment. There is a radical independence at play. The inability of Alcibiades to woo Socrates is Alcibiades’ inability to love Socrates.

4. Going back to heroes and leaders, I’m thinking this. We do live in a world where the best are continually taken for granted, where the most superficial of images draws people by the millions and institutions and even commitments. When DFW worries about authenticity, he is specific about the problem. To have your attention constantly competed for by what is worthless will lead to your not paying attention.

To not take things for granted, to be attentive to one’s life in the deepest sense, is to be open to one’s own mistakes, disappointments, and pain. Young Socrates learned the hard way about his conception of the forms. More importantly, Alcibiades was a pupil that got himself and his teacher in trouble. Athens’ ultimate response to philosophy was an attempt to exterminate it completely. Just as we could describe a philosopher as carefree and happy with his own pursuits, we could also find him drowning in problems.

In a similar fashion, I think the logic with which we started reflecting on heroism and leadership incomplete. We said they inspire because of a certain honesty, their dedicating themselves to a principle beyond themselves. That’s not really what makes them heroes. What makes heroes amazing is that they do what they do in spite of everyone else. We expect them to break, we do neglect them when they don’t. Heroes only inspire some, not all. This isn’t to celebrate hard-headed intransigence. It is to explain why we put our leaders in a position where they must sell themselves to us. We stopped believing not just because of a culture of spin, but because we’re in deep denial about how much things actually cost.

Emily Dickinson, “Faith” is a fine invention (185)

“Faith” is a fine invention (185)
Emily Dickinson

“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!

Comment:

Gentlemen, secure with their wealth and virtue, know they have to take charge. They have to see, or more properly, have to proclaim they are seeing. Maybe that is why “faith” is in scare quotes and “see” is italicized. That they say they can see necessitates faith: it is both found and made. Whether or not anything is actually seen, well, that’s another question. As is the sort of faith, which pertains to society more than an individual.

On a first reading of this poem, one might be tempted to say “microscopes,” the active seeking of scientific, empirical knowledge, decisively counters the so-called seeing of faith and tradition. But that’s crazy. When are microscopes prudent in an emergency, excepting movies about contagion? The only thing prudent in an emergency is a clear head and clear vision, i.e. parts of prudence itself. Prudence comes from people like “Gentlemen,” who have an ability to keep steady because of “faith.” It isn’t enough to know; one must be able to act based on knowledge; an emergency calls for the best response possible, which does not necessarily stem from knowledge alone. Looking at the littlest details could cost one everything. Still, Dickinson moves us to the littlest details, the smallest part of the whole.

The tension between faith and knowledge with regard to one’s own affairs is sharp, to say the least. In a way, they can be reconciled. The Gentlemen who see, having faith, only need the microscopes in case of emergency. Their “faith” takes care of most issues, but it is precisely their faith that will not prove adaptive enough. Microscopes needed in case of emergency have less to do with the knowledge they actually yield, knowledge of an empirical character that might be said to be reality-based. They have more to do with the vision of the Gentleman, who in a certain sense takes the world for granted.

Actual knowledge of the world is necessary to act prudently, but not sufficient. But what is sufficient isn’t really seeing the world itself in order to act in it, but the addition of a “fine invention” that is as far away from knowledge as one can get. No wonder “faith” is in scare quotes. Belief has the character of infinite regress. The second you believe as zealots do, without doubting anything, you’re acting like you have knowledge. That’s not really belief. What belief is: you start with a “fine invention” that gives what looks like insight, at first. Then something happens that doesn’t test it directly – emergencies are not the character of everyday life – but still calls the whole character of it into question. An existence between faith and knowledge, where one can only hope for a greater knowledge, is the individual.

Afternoon with Hanshan

Why sit whining over things?
When you’ve read the Classics through,
You’ll know quite enough of death.

Hanshan, tr. A.S. Kline

Arrival at a bookstore. Deep breath, a relaxed, confident feeling – this is nowadays strange for me. But earlier in the week, it happened.

I’ve been holding myself to an unrealistic standard lately. Everything I say has to be beautiful, useful, or thoughtful. Not a bad idea, in theory. But when you’re hurting, half the time what you’ll get is garbled beyond comprehension, rushed like the emergency bridge you need. Disparate, messy materials that only matter as matter, a slab to support a weight. Falling, a few steps away.

I spent a bit of time with a volume of Peter Hobson’s translations of Hanshan. The lack of expectation in the store, with this book, was everything. I was free to explore. Free to draw associations, note similar themes or, God forbid, find something relevant and meaningful. We really do think that having expectations is the same as being thoughtful, and it is hard to break that spell. It’s hardest to break when you think meeting expectations will bring some good.

Hanshan speaks of wisdom; one can assume his located in a Buddhist tradition. All things change and perish, suffering cannot be wished away, compassion flowing continually from one’s soul marks the Enlightened. I don’t know that we need to work with any specific view of wisdom, though, to see the power of his reflections regarding the quest for it. The collection I read starts suggestively, describing a simple, traditional life: “ancestral plenty of fields and orchards,” a lack of envy, a wife calmly working the loom, children babbling. The non-rational is ordered such that it could be acceptable to someone who has wisdom. Yet the poem ends with these lines: “no guests / applaud our happiness except / the woodcutter / on his occasional rounds.” Ordered non-rationality is still perishable, and that leads to the larger question. Do we tie our notions of happiness to what is fleeting? Can this be remedied by finding or having a more static notion of happiness? (1)

The radical nature of pursuing this kind of question, at once religious and irreverent, makes itself clear in another poem. When younger, reading scripture while working diluted the work. Reading books when older also invited the disdain of one’s peers and a wife’s glare. It’s the intellectual movement which caught my eye, as it’s a theme that I’m sensitive to because of my study of the Socratic problem. Not working properly is not earning one’s keep. It’s an injustice as well as a slighting of one’s fellow man. Compounding the problem is that one grows from conventional piety to something that may be different later. One could say the man in question grew out of society, but it is clear society rejected him well before. (2)

To really read is subversive: you’re not allowing anyone to control your mind. However, to insist on this sort of freedom can be seen as threatening. Hanshan demonstrates this through the patheticness of those trying to write: “Wretched poor scholars hitting the limits the limits in cold and hunger, existing unattached for love of writing verse, grinding their bones to pound out words… who’s interested?” The social isolation is mutual, but don’t let “who’s interested” fool you into thinking these scholars are completely independent of the world. Composing verse well is like casting a spell – if done right, immeasurable power results. It is power, I suspect, that makes the scholars derelict, rejected even by dogs who see their occult tendencies: “The writings of a derelict have no takers. My friend, pen your sublimities on fancy cakes and put them out for hungry dogs to eat – even they won’t touch them.” (3)

The emergency bridges we fashion are themselves larger questions. Independent of pain at a given moment, we only have limited time in our lives to find answers that work for us. It’s soothing in a weird way to think about how ridiculous a quest for wisdom is, how overblown its pretensions and ambitions. One would overthrow the world if it was done “right,” i.e. articulated just one thing that hadn’t quite made itself visible. Again, it’s ridiculous. But maybe this is what it means for something to be true of (human) nature.

Notes

Translations of Hanshan above are from Poems of Hanshan, trans. Peter Hobson. Walnut Creek: Altamira, 2003. References below are to this work.

1. pg. 7, Poem 1 (15)

2. pg. 9, Poem 3 (111)

3. pg. 12, Poem 6 (99)

Note on Francis Bacon, “Of Unity in Religion”

Almost hidden in “Of Unity in Religion” is a comment on the conduct of a philosopher, reproduced below. To summarize:  The “rending of God’s church” can be effected by problems which resemble philosophical ones. In essence, such problems are also political, as we are not really told of what their substance consists. Bacon tells us that what is at stake is “great,” but the substance is afflicted by people exercising their cleverness. Too much “subtility” and “obscurity” take an issue upon which a lot depends and make it a contest of pride. The ignorant do not realize how much they agree with each other. Only those with “judgment and understanding” see the larger issue and agreement. God is accepting of opposed ignoramuses, as they intend the same thing; Paul warns that “profane novelties” and “contradictions” abound in falsehood presented as knowledge. Men allow words to govern meaning instead of looking at utility, and this leads Bacon to wonder about two sorts of errors in creating a knowledgeable whole. There is the simple case of “everyone is ignorant,” unable to make proper distinctions. Everything is the same in the dark. There is the more complex case when we admit that things do directly oppose each other. Whatever is truer will cause conflict:

The other is, when the matter of the point controverted, is great, but it is driven to an over-great subtilty, and obscurity; so that it becometh a thing rather ingenious, than substantial. A man that is of judgment and understanding, shall sometimes hear ignorant men differ, and know well within himself, that those which so differ, mean one thing, and yet they themselves would never agree. And if it come so to pass, in that distance of judgment, which is between man and man, shall we not think that God above, that knows the heart, doth not discern that frail men, in some of their contradictions, intend the same thing; and accepteth of both? The nature of such controversies is excellently expressed, by St. Paul, in the warning and precept, that he giveth concerning the same, Devita profanas vocum novitates, et oppositiones falsi nominis scientiae. Men create oppositions, which are not; and put them into new terms, so fixed, as whereas the meaning ought to govern the term, the term in effect governeth the meaning. There be also two false peaces, or unities: the one, when the peace is grounded, but upon an implicit ignorance; for all colors will agree in the dark: the other, when it is pieced up, upon a direct admission of contraries, in fundamental points. For truth and falsehood, in such things, are like the iron and clay, in the toes of Nebuchadnezzar’s image; they may cleave, but they will not incorporate.

At least for me, I see this as about philosophy without reading out “God” and “peace,” which seem to point to religion and politics, respectively. Rather, I start with the general problem: we can and do make important matters more complicated than they should be, so complicated that we confuse people as to what they actually want. The problem, then, is that too many fancy attempts to assert authority over a situation with knowledge simply results in a lack of self-knowledge. This is a lack that is fatal on a popular scale, and yes, the insane partisan divides we see in a number of countries do involve actors who cannot correctly identify their own interests.

But the political problem in Bacon’s thought can’t stay political, for this reason: What age doesn’t have people who are completely caught up in ideological blinders? Bacon himself introduces actors above the fray: “a man of judgment and understanding,” “God,” “St. Paul.” There is someone out there, in any given age, who can see the spirit of his time and judge accordingly what men both need and desire. This sounds mystical, but the word for this kind of knowing is prudence – it’s just being expressed on a slightly bigger scale. What is crucial is that the one exercising prudence is not taken in by false, useless distinctions. In other words, he uses the via negativa in a way less theological, and much more Socratic. However, the philosopher in his prudence does seem to a more active role than Socrates ever did. In at least some cases, he builds from a consensus in society that already exists.

Again, political and religious readings of this passage run into problems. Bacon ends bleakly, for those of us concerned with religious tolerance and freedom of conscience. If a religion has more claim to “truth,” it can only stand the existence of another for so long (“cleave, but.. not incorporate”). In the next paragraph in this essay, he urges Christians to obtain unity in a way consonant with the spirit of charity, never fighting to convert others. As noble as that is, what it has to do with truth is an open question. Whether political peace can ever be founded upon the simple truth is also an open question: we fight for what we believe in, and we fight best when we believe in others. There’s a correspondence between the people in a political community and the opinions which govern that community, and that enables peace. Bacon, strikingly enough, does not speak of this more ancient view of politics but instead spends a lot of time speaking of Christian sentiments promoting factionalism which threatens peace and security.

Socrates’ injunction to “do no harm” is the philosopher’s justice. Obviously, not every philosopher is Socratic or agrees with this view of justice. Bacon’s emphasis on scientific and technological progress, the mastery of nature for the sake of utility, definitely is not harmless in the strict sense. But I am predisposed to think that the “peace” of which Bacon speaks as internal to the philosophic life. Truth and falsehood will not cleave, but they are not all we have to work with. We search for knowledge, and we can try to know our own ignorance. This does not place us beyond falsehood, but one sort of strife can be avoided. At the very least, one can know truly where one stands with respect to others.

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