“What is Philosophy?” 8/23/19

[Note: I’m preparing for my classes next week and writing out lecture materials. I googled “What is philosophy?” and appreciated all the answers given. But I thought I should introduce my students to why the question matters at all.]

“What is philosophy?” I ask, and some of you already expect a philosophic answer without being able to say what philosophy is. You feel the answer should be about higher things, things like “purpose” or “science” or a happiness which can never be taken away. And you probably feel that answer should be more inspiring than technical, showing why people talk about “philosophy” and “religion” in the same breath, or, more to the point, why Socrates willingly went to his execution in the name of philosophy.

I need to step back a bit from this way of speaking. I may not know what philosophy is, but I have some idea of what it’s worth. Yet I spent a large part of the last three months playing video games and moping. If philosophy is worth dying for, surely it is worth living for, but I can’t say I’ve lived up to any sort of ideal. Some of you are in high school, and the feeling of having to be at school lingers, boredom merging with your anxiousness over being accepted and earning achievement. You want to know you’re wanted and that you can succeed. These are not trivial desires—people with much more experience, people who have helped save lives want the same. Can philosophy speak to your wants? Can it speak to a sense of freedom, belonging, and purpose?

The word “philosophy” is worth a closer look. It means “love of wisdom” and suggests a number of questions for which we can begin outlining answers. What is “wisdom?” The Greek sophia, which we take to mean wisdom, originally referred to technical expertise. In other words, there were knowledgeable and expert shoemakers, poets, and sculptors. But was wisdom even conceivable? We nowadays assume wisdom exists because we lump—as far as I can tell—two scenarios together. A Mr. Spock or Professor X type of person uses logic or knowledge to set events in motion that are good for many even though bad things will occur, e.g. the starship is destroyed or the mutant academy gets attacked. This first scenario is about using knowledge to get something out of life, even though life can be incredibly harsh, if not thought irredeemable. If you can use knowledge this way, that would seem to be a sort of “wisdom,” no?

The second scenario is simpler: we assume moral concerns and moral questions to be under the domain of “wisdom.” If someone can give a serious answer to “What is justice?”, for example, we consider that person “wise.” Here’s the problem—the two scenarios do not neatly add up. Moral concerns taken seriously require self-sacrifice. You discover courage’s true importance; you act courageously for the sake of your home, family, friends; you die because of that courage. That is not at all the same thing as trying to consider every possibility life throws at you in order to get what’s best for everyone. If you know better in a variety of situations, you probably have more value alive than dead. Yet we consider both scenarios—either wisdom in the service of moral concerns, or wisdom as a way of navigating life’s harshness—as wise ways to live.

To be sure, it may not be possible to escape this tension. If Socrates died for philosophy’s sake, his death may be considered between the space of “what is moral” and “what is simply best.” Of course, Socrates himself leans heavily toward the latter idea. In Xenophon’s Apology, one of his companions starts crying hysterically when the jury condemns Socrates to death. Socrates asks what’s wrong and hears “what I find it hardest to bear is that I see you being put to death unjustly!” In response, Socrates asks whether it is preferable to see him put to death justly.

When I’m confronted with a problem, I look for anything which might help me build a strategy. It’s gaming, of all things, which showed me how to talk about strategy building. You don’t posit a strategy because it’s right and going to immediately work. You create one as a means of learning, a way to knowledge. If the strategy doesn’t work at all, you know not to try it, maybe not even try anything like it. If it works with some effectiveness, then you have a clearer picture of what’s relevant in the problem you’re confronting. And if it completely works, you don’t have a problem anymore. The funny thing is where learning best occurs: not in the ideal scenario, where problems disappear entirely, but more than likely in the middle scenario, where you come to a deeper understanding of a problem even while the problem fails to be resolved.

With this in mind, here’s our rough problem: we’d like to know what “wisdom” means so we can better say what “philosophy” means. The challenge we’re facing is that “wisdom” has to do with the whole of life. Life is an incredibly large topic. How do we isolate what wisdom means in terms of life? We came close when we spoke of trying to get what is good out of tough circumstances in contrast to being immersed in moral concerns. Wiser people than me have used the phrase “the tragedy and comedy of life,” which one could say refers to whether we have to deal with the cruelty of it all by simply standing for some higher idea, or whether we can ultimately find happiness when all is said and done.

But as some of you have guessed, there’s probably more to wisdom than the whole of our individual lives or even personal meaning for each of us. What if you discover a formula for the entire universe? What if you have some insight into what a higher being or truth must be like? Whatever you find will in a way relate to you personally—while that may be a small thing in some cases, it may be the most necessary starting point. It’s pretty pointless to speak of knowledge with no idea of why it was wanted, needed, or used.

When building a strategy, I remember, it is best to start small. Start with something where you can begin to account for each word, each meaning, each intent. Something where one has to interpret, and then ask oneself what the act of interpretation itself entails. “Small” need not indicate a lack of profundity. On my mind is this couplet from Ilya Kaminsky, ending a poem about the oppression of a city, the complicity of its citizens, and murder:

At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow this?

And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow this?

In the times we live in, you more than likely sense these words as having impact. The question they illustrate concerns responsibility and the awful weight it carries. When are “we” responsible? When are “we” a we, a unity as opposed to individuals? How do we mark others as “Other,” condemning them to their deaths? The question of moral necessity, put directly in confrontation with what is recognized as divine, makes philosophy itself a moral imperative. In order to know who “we” are and why we’re horrified at our own treatment of each other, we have to admit we’re merely human, that the flesh and blood of our species seems to somehow lean toward a concern for the flesh and blood of all other people and species. I’m not saying there is some natural law within us which inclines toward morality. I am saying we can be in shock by what we’ve done, that awareness of who we really are is a powerful and terrible thing. And I am saying that horror means we may take facts of all sorts—material, psychic, literary, conventional realities—and try to grasp where we have control, where we don’t. “Why did you allow this,” an introduction to a tragic whole, one way of seeing oneself in the service of wonder.

Zephaniah; Paul Hoover, “God’s Promises”

Zephaniah does not hesitate to grab your attention. In the beginning: “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord (Zephaniah 1:1). Why will the Lord destroy everything? Idolatry, the worship of things not Him. “I will sweep away… the idols that cause the wicked to stumble” (1:3); “I will destroy every remnant of Baal worship in this place, the very names of the idolatrous priests” (1:4); in the fire of his jealousy the whole earth will be consumed (1:18).

Idolatry entails neglecting the true God. Abandonment has been on my mind recently, and I can safely say it leads to anger. It’s very difficult to process being ignored, being made to feel like you should not even try to meet others or communicate. That anger seems to be present in Zephaniah’s rhetoric: “I will bring such distress on all people that they will grope about like those who are blind” (1:17). As you, who are ignored, act blindly—not sure who you should talk to or where you should go— the Lord has been blinded by those unfaithful. He’s not sure whom He should approach. Justice, then, would be blindness for the sinful.

Condemnation of idolatry in Zephaniah means condemnation of foreign influence and other nations. “I will punish… all those clad in foreign clothes” (1.8); Gaza will be abandoned and Ashkelon left in ruins (2:4); “Moab will become like Sodom, the Ammonites like Gommorah” (2:9); Nineveh [will be] utterly desolate and dry as the desert (2:13). Jerusalem and Judea are called to repent, to be different, but they are not above criticism. Jerusalem is called the city of oppressors, rebellious and defiled (3.1). I cannot argue with a prophet, but I can express discomfort at his rhetoric and articulate moral reasons for the discomfort. We do not live in ordinary times, where allegory can be trusted to remain a literary device. Many states are asserting the moral purity of one part of their people over against other parts of their people. They decry “corruption” as a condition that can never be washed away; the foreign always remains the foreign. They are willing to attack other nations and their own neighbors over the most trivial of differences. To Zephaniah’s credit, only God takes up the mantle of “warrior” (1:14; 3:17). Those who are called to repent are to be “meek and humble,” to “eat and lie down” and not be afraid (3:12-13). It does not seem those who choose the Lord should take up arms. Still, it does seem a space has been created for a figure to raise himself by means of violence and be accepted by those who think themselves pure.

What to make, then, of the instrument of the Lord’s justice? Idolatry, like abandonment, is a form of violence if not explicit violence itself. Idolaters “fill the temple of their gods with violence and deceit” (1:9); they are evening wolves who profane the sanctuary and do violence to the law (3:3-4). God Himself, truth and justice, has been made to feel like He does not deserve to exist. The reply, the prophecy, takes the form of violence in at least one aspect, as God promises a day of wrath (1:15).

I feel like I am articulating a very contemporary concern. I’m not saying Zephaniah cannot provide an answer, or has not provided one already. But we need an answer that has a certain immediacy, that speaks the world we live in, not the world where Nineveh is the seat of empire. Enter Paul Hoover’s “God’s Promises:”

God's Promises (from poetryfoundation.org)
Paul Hoover

I, the Lord, will make barren
your fields and your fairways.
Your refrigerators will be empty,
no steaks and no leg bones,
no butter and no cornbread.
And I will remove your screen doors,
force the mosquitoes indoors
where you lie on the bed undead.
For my house you have not readied,
no flat screen and no broadband.
My habitation is a wasteland
of furniture from motel rooms.
I will send the ostrich and badger
in herds through your wrecked rooms;
your beds will be entered by turnstile;
the floor will seethe with bees.
For my house is but a prefab;
its roof lets in my rain.
Woe is the Lord of Heaven
who has no mansion on earth.
Cries are heard from my fish traps,
crows flap on my hat rack,
pandemonium at the threshold
as the owls and bats flit in.
Silence reigns in the last place
and the first place has no sway.
For my knife-edge is impatient,
my ledge crumbles like cake.
I have warned you to beware.
You await a handsome savior,
but the plain man draws near...


Hoover, in contrast to Zephaniah, begins gently: I, the Lord, will make barren your fields and your fairways. Your refrigerators will be empty, no steaks and no leg bones, no butter and no cornbread. Not brother taking arms against brother, but a loss of luxury. Already, especially for those of us accustomed to a certain style of preaching, I can hear the screeching: “This isn’t Biblical.” What warrant do any of us have to take a God who speaks in violent terms and replace that with no “fields and… fairways?”

I can say this. If the purpose of thinking through these sorts of things is to discover something about yourself, something you could be doing better, Hoover’s on the right track. The question concerns the nature of violence. For Judea, being overrun by some gigantic empire is a real problem; the desire to be like other nations is not simply blasphemy, but an understandable reaction to who actually has power and why. There’s a part of this rhetoric that cannot translate to the United States of America, not in the slightest. I know one of the people who told me racism doesn’t exist worked with some of the poorest people in this area. When you have everything, it’s possible to be so blinded by privilege you can’t even see that other people are in need.

The nature of the violence we confront nowadays is like global warming. You won’t see it until it takes away a comfort that’s immediate. No fields, no fairways, no meat, no butter, no cornbread. The earth has suddenly stopped giving, and only then we realize we paid no attention to it. We did our best to keep it out, and now it is angry and will not accept that: I will remove your screen doors, force the mosquitoes indoors where you lie on the bed undead.

Hoover navigates the coming crisis as a blend of environmental catastrophe and our neglect of the poor. In truth, the issues are one: when a coal magnate is governor of, say, West Virginia, worth 1.6 billion and grifting through the very government meant for the people, you can see the link immediately. Some people are ripping the earth to shreds for dollars while everyone else, with nothing, has to wander through whatever is left. My house you have not readied, no flat screen and no broadband. My habitation is a wasteland of furniture from motel rooms.

When the crisis hits, rich and poor will be on a level field. Ostrich and badger [will be sent] in herds through your wrecked rooms; your beds will be entered by turnstile; the floor will seethe with bees. That leveling is the sign of justice, but not justice or redemption itself. It is woe, woe shared by oppressors who thought themselves above others and the oppressed who the Lord said He was. Woe is the Lord of Heaven who has no mansion on earth.

Where is true justice, then? Hoover brings us to a very contemporary idiom, our fascination with survivalists: Cries are heard from my fish traps, crows flap on my hat rack, pandemonium at the threshold as the owls and bats flit in. Silence reigns in the last place and the first place has no sway. You can hear in those lines someone trying to get food and deal with too many creatures during an apocalypse. You can hear the loneliness: there’s all this noise, but silence reigns. Maybe idolatry really is abandonment. A cult of self-sufficiency has made some monsters who would devour the world and proclaim themselves great, others loners who would push others away at the slightest provocation. But what happens if you actually need to survive, alone? The very possibility of justice is lost, it seems. To do justice to each other is a blessing.

Emily Dickinson, “Doom is the House without the Door” (475)

Because you think something, you’re trapped; because I think, I’m trapped. One traps oneself in the same way light enters a house without a door: Doom is the House without the Door — ‘Tis entered from the Sun. Light, “from the Sun,” has the ability to enter an enclosed space in an almost immaterial way. This seems grand, but is it possible to find a way out? The poem tells us we are “doomed,” fatefully stuck.

How can one “doom” oneself from a mere thought? Perhaps far more than one thought is operative, but the safe assumption is that whatever dooms us is near imperceptible. Still, the poem as a whole plays with the idea that whatever space we’ve entered, we imagine the rest of reality from:

Doom is the House without the Door (475)
Emily Dickinson 

Doom is the House without the Door —
'Tis entered from the Sun —
And then the Ladder's thrown away,
Because Escape — is done —
'Tis varied by the Dream
Of what they do outside —
Where Squirrels play — and Berries die —
And Hemlocks — bow — to God — 

How does one doom oneself from a mere thought? I myself might be doing this all the time—I get “hung up” on how I feel, think I have found some great insight, then start trying to apply it to everything around me. I guess I had better admit the Ladder’s thrown away, / Because Escape — is done.

The Biblical overtones of “Ladder,” though, hint at a grander delusion or more fundamental problem. Not just any supposed insight is at stake, as this concerns wrestling with God. If you think you have an insight that could serve as revelation, surely you are doomed. Doomed if you’re wrong, for obvious reasons. But also doomed if you’re right, because you’ve chosen the only fate possible.

Sometimes, when we feel downcast, we play the part of prophet a bit too much. This poem hits hardest when one realizes one could be right and the insight wouldn’t be helpful. Instead of going outside, I’d simply Dream / of what they do outside. “They” is purposely vague, as if I’ve ceased to communicate with people who actually exist. I’ve unfortunately known quite a few people who were more wed to their thoughts of what others were like because they could not deal with real people.

Outside is Where Squirrels play — and Berries die — / And Hemlocks — bow — to God. I wonder. I can see myself both jealous and charmed at the idea animals can simply play. It’s a delusion, of course. We’ve all seen how much pain animals endure, physical and emotional. I can also see myself muttering about how everything will cease to be. Some species of berries do not come back. “Hemlocks” is the trickier item. It implies Socrates, who famously did not bow. The problem is this: if one’s insight dooms one, causing one to be bitter, should we consider it wise?

“Hemlocks — bow — to God” suggests Dickinson thinks this doom the death of reason. I’m inclined to agree, but there’s a problem still outstanding. How do we know when a thought is acting like a revelation? How do we know when we’ve silently decided we’re some kind of Cassandra? The only sure answer is when we look back at how we’ve acted and thought, summing up years of our lives in some cases with a mere “Oh.”

Gunnar Ekelöf, “Untitled”

Are you lonely—I repeat these words to myself. Once, twice, again. Slightly incredulous with each restatement and at the same time wanting to jump into a lake of self-pity.

The hurt which comes from neglect belongs to an especially vicious cycle. You get neglected, and then you’re not sure how to respond to further abandonment or behaviors which look like abandonment. At least once in the past year I’ve felt awfully guilty, even though I was treated so badly I would have been furious if anyone was treated the same. However, I can’t say I’ve been completely respectful of the feelings of others. I wonder when I was too quick to judge, but also when my spider-sense worked properly.

Indulging self-pity isn’t a good reaction, but I understand it better now. It’s a starting point for knowing that you were wronged. That’s not always clear when you’re lonely and neglected. You really do believe on some level you’re not worth talking to or being around. The self-pity is part of a defense mechanism, even if it quickly gets out of hand.

Ekelöf, for his part, does not care to hear about my attempts to deal with my emotions. He’s, um, a bit direct: Are you lonely / So be it!

Untitled (h/t Devin Gael Kelly; from Selected Poems)
Gunnar Ekelöf (tr. W.H. Auden & Leif Sjöberg)

Are you lonely
So be it!
You will acquire a great train
In the end.

It feels like a 5 year old who was really excited about trains spoke this poem. It’s as if he saw someone despondent and remembered that before Christmas or a birthday he was feeling lonely. But then he got a cool toy train! I actually can’t help but feel better writing out that ridiculous scenario. I’ve been so lucky to run into a number of people in my life who simply and innocently wanted me to feel better. It’s hard to remember how powerful some of those encounters were, not because they weren’t amazing and tender, but because after I felt I was worth knowing I got sucked right back into loneliness.

You might say it’s an excess of self-pity or ungratefulness which caused me to forget moments which should have had more meaning, but I think you’re underestimating how powerful people purposely ignoring each other is. Obviously we should not engage everyone at every moment; obviously no one is entitled to attention. But some people really know how to use their inattention as a weapon—they will do their best to let you know that you might as well not exist. At a societal level, powerful groups do this to those who need recognition in order to secure rights. Loneliness isn’t just loneliness. Dating, as we all know, entails more politics than a constitutional convention.

Ekelöf’s little declaration does not feel terribly political, though. Are you lonely / So be it! / You will acquire a great train / in the end—the form of this poem recalls the Beatitudes. It starts with a condition of virtue or suffering (e.g. “Blessed are the merciful”) and promises, when all is said and done, justice (e.g. “for they will receive mercy”). Is Ekelöf trying to call our attention to the nature of Beatitude? That one must embrace some kind of pain, and begin to see through the worldly the otherworldly?

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”—this seems especially relevant. It isn’t enough to be comforted. It’s only enough to experience grief, value the willingness of those who would comfort, appreciate their lovely, effective, successful efforts at comfort. The worldly, “being comforted,” is a gateway to a much larger experience, one encompassing a human community not bound by time but by moral commitment. On my reading, suffering is a radical remaking of one’s awareness as well as the world itself.

If this poem is a Beatitude, though, it is pretty ridiculous. How does a “great train” address loneliness? I don’t have an answer, but like my hypothetical 5 year old, I have a story. It’s safe to say that each time I was abandoned I found new people and new opportunities. It didn’t happen because I tried to force the issue and send everyone on OKCupid a bunch of messages. Quietly, I dropped some hidden expectation, and that helped me open to others. I’m not going to say that hidden expectation was bad—it may have been crucial to a life together with a specific person. But if they left, then a space was opened, and it wasn’t necessarily a wound.

The Folds of Love

I make fun of myself for wanting to be loved, but you won’t find a trace of that humor in my prose.

Writing, as if it were a more powerful sort of memory or mind than held by an individual, holds the loss of love, or a lack of attention or acknowledgment, to be one of the worst things that can happen to someone. You might say this is because writing itself is a plea to a reader; the very nature of words made permanent is a want of love and attention. That may be true, but this fragment from Sappho shows what else is involved:

 We put the urn aboard ship
 Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

 We put the urn aboard ship
 with this inscription:

 This is the dust of little
 Timas who unmarried was led
 into Persephone’s dark bedroom

 And she being far from home, girls
 her age took new-edged blades
 to cut, in mourning for her,
 these curls of their soft hair 

Young Timas never found a mate. Unmarried…[she] was led into Persephone’s dark bedroom: that’s the inscription given to her remains. It strongly implies that without being loved, she may not have had any idea what life itself is. The rest of the fragment seems to reinforce this theme. “Far from home,” she’s a guest of sorts. In an urn, she has been consumed, a sacrifice to who-knows-what.

Everyone sees Timas’ loss as a momentous tragedy, a worry that they too could share such a terrible fate. It does not radicalize them, though. No one becomes an “incel,” demanding they alone must have intimacy or the world must burn. Rather, they grieve together. Girls her age took new-edged blades to cut, in mourning for her, these curls of their soft hair. The loss of Timas reinforces a strange, mystic, tender solidarity. They are resolved that love is necessary; everyone deserves it; it must be freely given in due time. The last is the sticking point, as it seems incredibly cruel to be alive for any moment and not feel fully loved. But being loved is so valuable that Timas, though unmarried, is obviously loved, loved so much that those around her wished she had found that much more. She should have lived so that her marriage could be celebrated, whenever it may have been. Extend that logic, and if Timas had remained single for her whole life, she would be justly celebrated as beyond common notions of love.


The fragments, perhaps, mention Timas again. Sappho dreamt about love and beauty, picturing Aphrodite—or was she Timas?

 Cyprian, in my dream
 Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

 Cyprian, in my dream

 The folds of a purple
 kerchief shadowed
 your cheeks – the one

 Timas one time sent,
 a timid gift, all
 the way from Phocaea 

Like it or not, friendship and love blur. Sappho thinks she was sent “a timid gift,” implying that she believes Timas should have been more forthright with her desire. But Sappho says she saw Aphrodite herself wearing that gift. Sappho loves the idea of being loved, so much so she’s falling in love with the one she hopes desires her. Whether she fully realizes what is occurring…well, I don’t know that any of us have that level of self-consciousness.

Nowadays a number of us keep a strict separation between friends and lovers. I know at least one person who repeatedly labels others “friends.” I’m not clear on what this is supposed to accomplish, as friendship itself is an enormous commitment. You have to want to benefit your friends, not just be funny or share silly stories. You have to celebrate their growth, not just their achievement. Friendship done right expands: more people want to be friends with you, more people want to hear from you, and your corresponding responsibilities grow. Being emotionally available, being willing to be vulnerable, being willing to communicate and listen is maybe the gravest responsibility. Friendly love, above all, reminds you that love of any sort or degree isn’t really a game. It’s hard work, and it’s why true lovers must be excellent friends—they help anchor each other’s reality.

In light of Timas’ death, I wonder if the memory that can sustain one is of a love one believes could have been had. Love has the “folds of a purple kerchief,” one might say. To take a few examples: friends and lovers overlap, the love that sustains a family comes from romance, and even life and death fold upon each other, becoming unrecognizable.


In July, I drove from Dallas to Oklahoma City to see a friend. As soon as the car touched open highway, the feeling of freedom was unlike anything I had felt in a long time. Stretches of Texas were dust and truck rentals by the roadside, a sandbox of toy cars punctuated by the occasional Applebee’s. I searched the radio but only found the stations from Dallas fading away.

Beyond the Red River, you drive over a hill, and your eyes open to rolling green hills with small buildings in the distance—here a church, there a town hall. You drive through the Arbuckles, an ancient set of mountains. They are so old they fell over on their side, and something about the area feels lush, full of life. A giant wind farm dominated part of my view on 35, and for a second I thought what woolly mammoths grazing were like.

When I arrived at Oklahoma City, I promptly went to the Museum of Art. I wasn’t prepared at all for Kehinde Wiley’s “Jacob de Graeff:”

“Jacob de Graeff” (2018), by Kehinde Wiley. Photo by Jean-Paul Torno, from the Oklahoma City Museum of Art’s site. Link in description.

Gerard Ter Borch’s “Jacob de Graeff” also sports a cane, but stands against a dark background. His garments hold rich, silver details; I’m not terribly convinced by the hair of the subject, but I can only see what the photograph of the painting lets me. Mr. de Graeff does not look terribly patient in his official pose, as he knows he’s more important than you. He has the clothes to prove it. He has those clothes because his family made a fortune from slavery.

Wiley’s “Jacob de Graeff” is Brincel Kape’li Wiggins, Jr., a rapper who goes by the stage name Kapeli. Kapeli, if you’re reading this, please send me a page I can link to—you’ve been lionized in fine art, but it shouldn’t take great art for us to pay attention to each other. Your work, whatever it may be, deserves an audience. An artist took his time to muse on every detail of another artist; the least we can do is listen to both.

For now, I want to spend some time on Wiley’s painting. Instead of a dark background setting off silver, there are floral motifs. They assume a tight order around the painting, but break that order when they near Kapeli. The yellow flowers reach over him to add their adornment. They complement the red in his pocket perfectly.

Kapeli has put together quite the outfit. He’s got a jacket that looks a purple-blue to me, white pants, a t-shirt with a gray design, and a black hat and shoes. In short: he’s wearing neutrals, displaying his fashion sense, his knowledge of what works. He does not rely on an outfit meant to convey any authority from the state. He certainly does not need a dark background and dark clothes so that the metals he’s wearing shine. His clothes play with different textures. The white pants are wrinkled but complement what might be a smooth, soft jacket. His watch is silver and reminds us of the original Jacob de Graeff, except that his watch, oversized as it is, is functional.

If portraits are about the status of one’s family, Kapeli’s cap, proclaiming “Ferguson,” tells us everything we need to know. It’s literally on his mind. But there’s no worry or defiance, no anger or collapse in his gaze or stance. The cane Kapeli holds is a prop—it merely accentuates the fact he’s standing, looking at you, trying to see who you are. He’s not displaying his authority as much as searching. But there definitely is an air of authority.

For this viewer, Wiley seems to be asking this: What does it mean to be an aristocrat? Does it mean you profit from slavery and assume a leading position in a wealthy, powerful country, like the original Jacob de Graeff (and a lot of other people we know nowadays)? That doesn’t seem right in any sense. What makes you best, what makes you worthy to rule, has to lie in your capacities. Kapeli’s looking you over: are you a threat or a friend? He knows how to dress, making the most from stuff that might have been bought at a thrift store. He’s got a great watch, and it works for him as an ornament and a means of measuring time. As the cap shows, he’s got a place he cares about and real moral concerns.

Kapeli’s right in front of you, a testament to merit triumphing over noble birth. Yet it’s not a testament many Americans recognize. There were a number of patrons I watched who glanced at this painting once, muttered something under their breath, and moved on. I’ve been speaking a lot about being ignored, neglected, and not even acknowledged recently because I can count the years where the number of people who were there for me could be counted on one hand. I realize that I’m lucky to have had that. I also know that it’s completely unacceptable: no one should be purposely ignored or unwelcome so others can feel power. Love doesn’t just have folds, it depends on folds. Only with folds are there multiple surfaces, dimensions, a world. What I feel most people want is a simple answer to life itself: that everything they do is justified, that they’re right no matter what, that the world would be better off if it only echoed them. The tragedy of Ferguson is that one group had all the power for years and only used it to oppress the residents, keeping the spirit of Jim Crow alive for decades. They had their echo. Racism is a voice that only hears itself speak and will allow no other. It’s a blank sheet of paper that cannot imagine the possibilities of origami.