Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ancient hypertext

Philosophy in the ancient world is not primarily the formulation of cosmological or even ontological doctrines, but the practice of a disposition, the training in a comportment, cultivation of openness to modes of experience. This is not to say that accounts of space, time, and matter, of substance and quality, of becoming and vanishing, did not play a role in the philosophy of the ancient Greeks or any other peoples. A keenness for facts and for theoretical frameworks runs from Thales, who knew enough about the physical universe to predict an eclipse and divert a river, to Epicurus’ claim that there was only atoms and the void. But these discourses always function in ancient philosophy in such a way that their meaning inheres in the way they relate to the ethical and self-transformative practices at the heart of philosophy.

Something of what that aim was can be gleaned from Lucretius.
De Rerum Natura is indisputably a work of cosmology, but it has its organizing motive in the desire to free its understanding readers from fear.
Death to us
Is nothing, nor concerns us in the least,

Since nature of mind is mortal evermore.

In this Lucretius faithfully transmits the tradition he lays claim to. Metrodoros of Chios, Epicurus’ immediate disciple, enjoined his students: “Remember, born mortal, with a finite life, you have risen thanks to the science of nature, as far as the infinity of time and space; you have seen what is, what will be, and what was.” Pierre Hadot, in his invaluable study
What is Ancient Philosophy?, points out that Metrodoros’ words are in continuity with a poetic practice: Hesiod, for instance, tells that the muses “breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things that were; and they bade me sing of the race of the blessed gods that are eternally” (Theogony 30-34). In other words, philosophy’s cosmogonic and theogonic vision is a legacy claimed from the oral tradition of the rhapsodes. The aim was the same: to deliver the philosopher from the fear of death and the tedium of a life half-lived. As Hesiod says, the muses bring “a forgetting of ills and a rest from sorrow.” Philosophy is no different, except that the relief it brings is claimed to be permanent, no mere respite but a genuine release. Plato maintains—for reasons that are the opposite of Lucretius’—that it delivers definitively from the fear of death:
--Do you think [asks Socrates], that a mind habituated to thoughts of grandeur, the contemplation of all time and all existence, can deem this life of man a thing of great concern?--Impossible, said he.
--Hence, such a man will not suppose death to be terrible?

--Least of all.
(Republic 486a-b)

The poetic tradition from which philosophy picked up was an oral one, and it is clear from the
Phaedrus that Plato, for one, preferred it so. Plato’s dialogues seem to me to be elaborate and very cunning devices meant to pull into play as many as possible of the different levels of communication that arise naturally in the course of ordinary conversation. The Seventh Letter famously expressly rejects the notion that philosophical realization can be captured in words at all; “Only after long partnership in common life devoted to [philosophy], truth is kindled as it were in one soul, by a flame leaping from another.”

Note that philosophical life is said to be common, shared. Hadot cites Seneca: “The living word and life in common will benefit you more than written discourse….The path of precepts is long, but that of examples is short and infallible.” Philosophical apprehension of truth does not occur by the thinker sitting alone. It is inherently an activity that transpires among thinkers together. This is how I read Plato when he has Socrates say that he does not learn anything from the trees or rocks, but that he can learn from the citizens of his city. (Later I will argue that this distance from the natural world, its claim that nature is inarticulate, is part of the distance that already separates Plato from the ancient poetic tradition). The work of sitting by myself and thinking hard is an indispensible part of philosophy, but only a part. It is completed by what happens when I am confronted by another, by a mind not my own, someone who challenges me, disputes my claim, calls on me to consider some further case or some other premise. Together we triangulate towards the truth.

And what is the nature of the realization in question? The most telling clue I can find is in
Epinomis 991e:
To the man who pursues his studies in the proper way, all geometric constructions, all systems of numbers, all duly constituted melodic progressions, the single ordered scheme of all celestial revolutions, should disclose themselves, and disclose themselves they will, if, as I say, a man pursues his studies aright with his mind fixed on their single end. As such a man reflects he will receive the revelation of a single bond of natural interconnection between these problems.

Such “interconnections” are not always logical or empirical; they may be free-associative. The parallel between Silenus and Socrates, or between the Tyrant and the number 729, for instance, rely on such indirect rationales. When Plato conceded to use writing as a tool for philosophy, he had recourse to a very large range of devices—an expansive “toolbox,” as John McCumber puts it—to simulate and spark such realizations. But these “prodigious and baffling” (
Republic 587e) chains are easily simulated in the hypertext manner by links. Such hypertext is one reason I have genuinely high hopes (and some grave concerns) for philosophy on the internet. It remains to be seen whether the era of books is over; but it is indisputable that we are living through a great transition in communication, and because human beings are “social animals,” this is likely to have deep and unforeseeable impact upon us. Philosophy is bound to respond to this shift as it did before at the advent of writing and of print. One need not be a technological determinist to conclude that the shift has an impact upon the way human beings are together, which means, the way they are at all. Philosophy must confront technology because, among other reasons, technology shapes human community, which means, the very possibility of philosophy itself—the common life in which alone philosophical attention is fostered.


  1. Okay, what's up with the font? I'm sure I'm not the only over 40 crusty old philosoph.

  2. I would say there's at least two of us, dy0genes. The font is what it is because my posts so far are long. (I assume you are speaking of the size; if it's something else, you must be less riddling). I will be experimenting with different settings on this front. You can also always adjust your text size on your browser, too.

  3. No it was the size, not reading on my own machine so I was straining a bit. The handicapable letter size is much appreciated.

    This should be a very interesting experiment. I think you are right that philosophy is a discipline of thinking that makes clear communication possible. When we understand the others perspective, then the ground is set for a creative dialogue. That creativity can happen in any field but the underlying discipline, philosophy, is the keystone that holds it together.

  4. I like very much what you say about the importance of others for philosophy. Let us not forget that just yesterday Freud discovered in the individual only Death. The necessity of the other for thought and love has long been noted. The problem, for me, is that the philosophers are radically separate from all others, ...from all possible others.

    I mean even their closest possible other - the mystics. The Mystic and the Philosopher both strive to understand (and even love) the Whole. But the Mystic loves unconditionally; this also means without suspicion. The Philosopher is suspicious of the Whole; oh, he loves - but he loves differently.

    Even the Mystic when he is devoid of human contact, he is intimately relating himself to the Whole. I deny that there is ever such intimacy with the genuine philosophers. - Not between them and their followers (or readers) and not between them and the Whole.

    Now, do the Philosophers comport themselves as you say they do? Certainly. I do not deny it. But comportment is always to be found among the practical things...

    Also, note that people will argue against you that it is thought that, among the moderns at least, Nietzsche is most certainly an individualist. This is incorrect. In BGE (Section 27) he compares the philosopher to the river and the exceptions and herd to the frogs and turtles that are sustained by the river. Read section 28 on tempo; the impossibility of translating tempo. Nietzsche is still here speaking of (among other things) the difference between philosophers, exception and herd. Although, of course, he dare not say it. Thus he is reduced to speaking of individuals, culture and national groups.

    And in the Antichrist, he will let us know exactly what he resents most in Christianity:

    Der Anarchist und der Christ sind Einer Herkunft... Nietzsche, Antichrist, 57

    Nihilist und Christ: das reimt sich, das reimt sich nicht bloss... Nietzsche, Antichrist, 58

    What he opposes above all is its "Individualism"! Only the philosophers can (be trusted to) be ever truly alone.


  5. Joe,

    Not a reader of German but I've read enough Nietzsche to follow your point.

    With great love and admiration I declare that Nietzsche was a freak. But I don't identify him with his thoughts. I think his philosophy lives on even among the frogs. Perhaps it is true that the creators of philosophy are always radically unusual kinds of people, but the philosophy they create has a life of its own. I'm no Nietzsche and I'm no Mozart or Bach either, but I can still try to understand and play with their works.

    Any reader of Nietzsche becomes accustomed to raising an eyebrow now and then and shaking ones head. That doesn't diminish the fact that he contributed greatly to the philosophical tradition. If I may hazard a definition I would say that tradition is mostly about establishing a space, perhaps an arena, where we are allowed to look at the whole as separate, as something we can dissect and take its measure. From Plato's cave to Nietzche's critique of morality and religion the process has been to drive back the shadows and dispell for us the illusions and prejudices that have held us enthrawled. The result is clarity of thought and purpose. The distillate a set of tools useful in any human situation.

    I for one have a wife and kids and a career and snow to remove from my driveway. I've very glad that I am not a philosopher in the greater sense. But I truely love philosophy and am sure that whether it's being a husband or a parent or a clinician or a snow shoveler, I do it all better because of philosophy.


  6. The German was translated (by Mencken) as follows:

    The anarchist and the Christian have the same ancestry. A, 57

    Nihilist and Christian: they rhyme in German, and they do more than rhyme.... A, 58

    There are different translations, but this is what I found on the internet.

    At this point I would initiate a discussion of esotericism. Our friend skholiast tells me he intends to do so and, on his blog, I defer to his discretion. Instead of this discussion I will just say that the philosophers dividing the world between philosophers, exception, and herd is a very old song. See Machiavelli, in the Prince, where he says:

    "Because there are three classes of intellects: one which comprehends by itself;
    another which appreciates what others comprehended; and a third which
    neither comprehends by itself nor by the showing of others; the first
    is the most excellent, the second is good, the third is useless." Prince, ch. 22.

    (Again, this is a translation I found on the internet -my typing skills are abysmal- always check several translations if one cannot read the original language.)

    Also, see Averroes' "The Decisive Treatise" in passing. This is an astounding work in which he divides humanity into three groups: "People of Demonstration", "People of Dialectic", and the "People of Rhetoric". If you are interested I have reviewed it at Amazon.

    Now, Plato largely limited himself to speaking to (and, I would argue, of) the exceptions. This is because he (obviously) lived before the rise of the "Platonisms for the People" and the appearance of the herd in history as an effective (semi-)self-conscious force. (Its appearance is the consequence of the Universalism of all Platonisms.) Again, Plato only speaks of (and to) exceptions. Indeed, when two philosophers (Eleatic Stranger, Socrates) actually appear in the dialogues (Sophist, Statesman) they barely speak to each other! Indeed, Plato seems to promise a discussion of the Philosopher to follow the "Sophist", and the "Statesman" (Stranger, 257 a - 258 b), but of course, no such dialogue ever appeared. Was it only between Socrates and the Stranger? Perhaps Philosophy never speaks publicly of itself?

    But, how did the exceptions allow the ordinary people to arise? Nietzsche, in the Genealogy of Morals, remarks (something to the effect) that the division between two 'classes' of exceptions (priest - warrior) was the first fight. The priests (and/or theologians) who administered the first "Platonisms for the People" (Christianity, Islam), used the herd to 'win' their age-old battle with the warriors.

    Well, enough of this thumbnail sketch of the history of philosophical psychology, the division of humanity into several types. In closing, some observations. It seems that, according to this psychology, the Philosopher and the herd are types that are capable of some unity. But the exceptions are in a perpetual civil war. No? In reading the Prince note how little appreciation, in general, Machiavelli has for the factions of the nobility (and priests). There are fundamentally only two possible sovereigns in Machiavelli: the Prince or the People. (In the 'Discourses' we see what Machiavelli means by a 'People'.) Also, do note Averroes' smoldering contempt for the 'People of Dialectic' in the "Decisive Treatise". Every division and heresy rises thanks to them!

    One last observation. The great certainty that the exceptions have always had that the philosophers are somehow 'with' them would seem to be an exaggeration. It has been famously said that diplomacy is the art of saying nice doggie while searching for a very big stick. Now, what would be the big stick of the philosophers?


  7. Thank you Joe, that is a very interesting discussion.

    What would a couple philosophers ever have to say to each other? Seems a very Zenny question. Maybe they'd sit quietly together or nod and move on.

    Do you really think the "people" capable of unity? I defer to your history of the idea, but I wonder if there is any underlying reality to it. I'm an American so, frankly, I've never belonged to a "people". In my imagination the idea of a "people" summons a pre-historical or even pre-language memory. Creating the illusion of a "people" seems like something out of the third Reich.

    I see the exceptions as classes of warring elites. But aren't the peoples merely extensions of individual power? What the Romans would call Familia. Peoples are collections of unexceptional individuals who are bound together by some common interest.

    And the philosophers? Are they qualitatively different than the exceptions? Your answer, Universalism seem right on. Philosophers are elites who have adopted a universal interest instead of a private one.

    I read your review on Amazon. I also noticed you've got a ton of them. I take you as a genuine scholar. A fitting friend for Skholiast. In sticking with the Nietzschian vocabulary I'd have to say I'm more like one of the new barbarians.

    I wonder how you see this schemata of philosopher/elites/people playing out in the current world. Are there any philosophers governing the world today? Any true monarchs? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

  8. I suppose it depends upon what one expects from 'unity'. Near the beginning of Plato's Republic Socrates gives us a description of a Just City, in which everyone minds their own business. It is categorically rejected by dear Glaucon as a 'city of pigs'. Now, Socrates nowhere agrees with this characterization but is 'forced' by the exceptions around him to build a Just City in speech that they will accept. After many detours we arrive in the City of the Philosopher-Kings. A City in which everyone (every class) 'minds its own business'. Thus I have been known to maintain that the history of philosophy can be regarded as the search for a 'City of Pigs' that the exceptions will accept. I suppose one could call it the 'unity of benign neglect'...

    But, of course, you are right. Nothing always endures. So any creation falls over time. The creation of unity is a bit like Sisyphus and his rock... But Camus says we can imagine that Sisyphus, at times, is happy. Perhaps we can say the same of the philosophers? You know I do not worry too much about the 'illusion' problem. All Cities are based on lies - whether lies about Unity or Particularity is quite besides the point. Races, Classes, Ethnicities, etc., are also, like Universalism, products of history. -That is, temporary arrangements on their way to becoming something else. Universalism and the various Particularities are all myths, formed in this ridiculously lethal history of ours. The question is - which myth is most useful for human flourishing at a given time?

    Yes, the people really did get dragged into the Civil War between exceptions. But before this civil war, before the rise of the City, there was something quite close to unity in those tiny primitive societies. The 64 dollar question is whether we will ever see anything like it again. If we do, it will certainly only be temporary... You said that, "Peoples are collections of unexceptional individuals who are bound together by some common interest." Isn't that unity? The universalist search is the attempt to find (or, if you prefer, manufacture) the 'common interest' of all.

    The Philosophers are separated from the exceptions by their acceptance of responsibility for the human whole and their moderation. Exceptions, on the contrary, only think of themselves; their glory and dignity. Nietzsche begs the exceptions to laugh at themselves (Zarathustra, fourth part, On the Higher Man). In the second chapter of Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche warns the exceptions away from (1.) their narcissistic self-obsession and (2.) their wretched hysteria:

    1. '...he was not made, he was not predestined, for knowledge. If he were, he would one day have to say to himself, “The devil take my good taste! but the rule is more interesting than the exception—than myself, the exception!” And he would go down, and above all, he would go “inside.”'

    2. "...no one lies as much as the indignant do." (BGE, The Free Spirit, Section 26, Kaufmann translation.)

    Have the exceptions learned to laugh? Have they stopped obsessing over themselves? Have they overcome indignation?

    No, there are no philosophers governing nor will there ever be. Philosophers have far better things to do with their time than governing. They can think! - That is more than enough. If the exceptions didn't exist philosophers would've been forced to invent them...