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

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Mythos and/or logos

A juxtaposition of apparently incommensurable discourses characterizes the earliest Greek philosophical texts to have reached us. Heraclitus, according to Clement of Alexandria who preserved this remark for us, says of “the One,” who “alone is wise,” that it is “both unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus,” a remark which can aptly serve as an epitome of incommensurability. Parmenides, usually thought to be the dispositional antipodes of Heraclitus, likewise illustrates the case. Parmenides’ poem certainly has an order and logic, but it can be read (insofar as its fragments can be read) as an amalgam of material religious, metaphysical, logical, astronomical, and biological. It begins (like Boethius) with an encounter with a goddess. Her maidens conduct the narrator in a hastening chariot whose wheels spin hot and make the sounds of pipes. Addressing the narrator, the goddess makes a distinction between two “ways,” of “it is” and “it is not,” drawing out the distinction into many conclusions, including the famous identity of what is thinkable with what is at all. By the time it ends, the poem has treated the moon, the planets, the Milky Way, and the position of male and female embryos in utero. If we had more of the poem, it would doubtless mention even more incongruous topics.

So what is going on? How did we get from Being and Nothingness to animal husbandry?

Parmenides felt no need to justify this transition, not because he did not know any better or because he reasoned by mistaken analogies, but because the very way in which he knew was still informed by that mode of consciousness Lévy-Bruhl called participation. These seemingly disparate realms are thought in terms of each other. In the same way that there is, for the native, a continuity or immediate relevance between tribe and totem, or natural phenomenon and the myths that “explain” it (it is the anthropologist, not the native, who speaks in terms of “explanation”), so Parmenides saw an obvious pertinence between the ontological categories of Being, and the cosmos—not just in its grand outlines and foundations, but even in “mud and hair,” as he assures Socrates in Plato’s dialogue.

For his part, Plato too seems to take for granted a certain fluidity of “subject matter” that is difficult for us to take seriously. For Plato, it is almost second nature to see Justice or Goodness or Love in terms of cookery or rhetoric or arboriculture; one might say, above all, in terms of geometry, astronomy, and music, except that these are, themselves, understood in terms of one another.
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. (Epinomis 991e).
The Epinomis is of controversial authorship; it is frequently attributed to Philip of Opus, Plato’s pupil and posthumous editor (Diogenes Laërtius mentions the attribution to him the division of the Laws into twelve books, and says that “some say” Philip wrote the Epinomis as a thirteenth to be an appendix). But Plato’s own practice clearly illustrates the same principle. He illustrates the pre-existence of the soul by a lesson in geometry; the best way to govern a state by a story about a mutinous crew of sailors; he offers a strange—and strangely precise—mathematical and musical account of the creation of the world soul. Plato’s use of these far-flung discourses is almost always read in terms of their furnishing “examples” and, at worst, they are completely overlooked, ignored, even edited out. In his 1945 translation of the Republic, F.M. Cornford, for instance—an admirable scholar in many ways—completely erased Socrates’ exposition of his “sovereign number” at 546.c (opining that it was an “extremely obscure description”) and offered a “simplification” of the tyrant’s allegory. It is true that these passages are difficult. It is hard to take them “seriously,” if by this we mean asking if Plato “means what he says.” The assumption that he does, in fact, mean what he says in some sense, and is not wasting the reader’s time, is borne out if one gives equal weight to his mode of expression (precise, mathematical) and his method (rhetorical, metaphorical). For Plato these modes of discourse lend themselves to each other—there is not a given distinction that is hard and fast between math and politics or even cookery and poetry. But what is the nature of their connection?

The question arises for us because it had already begun to arise for Plato. Even, I think, by Parmenides’ time, the experience of participation had slowly eroded for a long time. Once the universe had been a vast texture of interlocking analogies, felt in pulsing and vibrant clarity: planets corresponded with human dispositions and military outcomes, trees with planets, stories with trees, ritual with stories. In ritual, motions of knife, of rope, of flowers, the pouring of wine in a cup, the blowing of ashes on a stone hearth, the entrails of an animal and the cadences of words intoned to each god, all of these and more had formed a matrix of meaning, felt, assumed, taken for granted.

The questions that Socrates and Phaedrus entertain at the top of the cliff (in the Phaedrus 229 c-d) would not have occurred to anyone a few generations before: was the story of Boreas’ kidnapping of the Orithyia “really” a story of a girl who fell to her death because of a strong wind? We may compare this question to the issue raised by Lévy-Bruhl about the natives who, faced with the man apparently killed by crocodiles, did not distinguish between explanations that involved a witches disguising themselves as crocodiles, or sending a crocodile, or attacking with a club studded with crocodile teeth. The more anthropologists pressed these distinctions, Lévy-Bruhl notes, the more the distinctions were regarded by natives as otiose. Clearly, by the time Phaedrus and Socrates have climbed up outside the city, something has shifted.

All philosophy comes out of a matrix of mythology. One sees this matrix clearly with the Greeks, from Heraclitus, who said that Homer deserved to be thrashed with rods, to the late Hellenistic thinkers who read Homer and Hesiod through the sieve of allegory. It is likewise a crux of interpretation for the Indian rsis of the Upanishadic tradition. Reading philosophy in dialogue with its religio-mythical context is still, even all these years after Schelling, a task for our interconnected world. It is well known that Arab and Persian philosophy attends the preservation of European philosophy among the Germanic and Latin peoples in the Middle Ages. Reclamation of the philosophical inheritance of Amerindian and African cultures remains underway, hampered by the ambiguous legacies of colonialism and a Eurocentrism that remains despite (or because of) the West’s good intentions and bad conscience. One looks forward, for instance, to a subtle and multifaceted exposition of “African philosophy” without apology, without offering it as either a version or anticipation of Plato or Leibniz or Derrida, nor as an answer or alternative to them, but simply in terms of philosophy per se. This may be easier to accomplish in terms of Chinese, Indian, or (despite contemporary battle lines) Islamic philosophy, since these cultures were never decisively annexed by the West (even India’s period of colonization, for all that we are still hung-over from it, is a mere blip in its civilization’s history). Of the signal development of Chinese philosophy in dialogue with the great religious traditions of Taoism and Buddhism there can be no doubt. Voegelin was able to show the relevance of the great Hebrew, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian backgrounds to the emergence of the “Ecumenic age.” All of this follows in the wake of Jasper’s observation (building upon Hegel’s halfway concession) that philosophy begins in India and China as well as in Greece.

Enrique Dussel, among others, writes eloquently and forcefully of the properly philosophical content of concepts retrievable from Amerindian, Asian and African civilizations. Dussel stakes out the core problems of philosophy, universal questions that arise in any human linguistic matrix in one way or another, subject of course to grammatical variations but remarkably prevalent over time and geography: the nature of “real things in their totality,” and their behavior; “the mystery of their own human subjectivity, the ego, interiority, spontaneity, as well as the nature of freedom and the creation of the social and ethical world;” “the question of how we interpret the ultimate foundation of everything that is real, the universe itself;” and “the classic ontological question: ‘Why being and not nothingness?’” Dussel notes a historical process in which philosophy slowly extricates itself from mythological categories.
There is a progression in terms of degrees of univocal precision, semantic clarity, simplicity, and conclusive force with which foundations have been laid. But there are also losses in multiplicity of meaning when symbols are displaced, but which can be hermeneutically rediscovered….univocal rational discourse as expressed in philosophical categories that are capable of defining conceptual content without recourse to symbols (as in a myth) gains in precision but loses in terms of resonance of meaning.
Dussel mentions a number of compellingly philosophical categories which can easily be excavated from discourses that tend to be relegated to mythological or merely religious shelves. Perhaps easiest to swallow is the Upanishadic meditation upon atman and Brahman, karma and moksha. In China, the I Ching seems on one level to be a text rife with the “merely” mythological, but philosophy proper is there in full force in the dynamic between yin and yang, the waxing and waning of the Tao; by the time we read in the Tao Te Ching that “the way that can be named is not the eternal way,” there can be no doubt that philosophy is here in full bloom. In Mesoamerica, the symbol Quetzalcoatl (often rendered “feathered serpent,” but also translatable as “precious twin,” from quetzal, the richly colored plumes of a particular bird, and coatl, “snake,” but also “twin”) is assimilated to a properly philosophical concept ometeotl (two-god, from ome and teotl, “two” and “divinity.”) From here Dussel also mentions the “philosopher-king” Nezahuacoyotl, ruler of Texcoco (died 1472), who presided over a court full of tlamatini, “those who know” (or “philosophers” as Sahagun translated the term), who built a temple “to an unknowable Lord of Everywhere” according to his post-conquest biographers, a temple empty of images and in which human sacrifice was abolished.

These observations and interpretations may be controversial or tendentious, but this is only an index of the fact that the interpretation of mythology is already a properly philosophical endeavor. This, too, is clear already in Plato. Marx famously asserts (at the beginning of Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right) that “the critique of religion is the prerequisite for every critique.” I noted before that Aristotle called the lover of myths also a philosopher “of sorts” because both philosophy and myth were founded upon wonder. Socrates turns to a myth too often for it to be a matter of mere “illustration” of a point—unless “illustration” itself be further thematized. Indeed, Socrates acknowledges to Callicles (Gorgias 523a) that his story of the destiny of the soul can be called either mythos or logos, depending on one’s point of view; and there are stories and allegories he does not expressly describe as myths, even when they involve fantastic occurrences or actions of gods (the Phaedrus’ account of the invention of writing by the Egyptian god Theuth is an instance); whereas the ideal city of the Republic is so called. For Socrates, not every exposition of myth is worthy of pursuit. The Euhemerist reductions of Boreas’ abduction of Orithyia, he declares to be an almost frivolous pursuit, distracting from the real business of philosophy, which is to come to know oneself. There is no point in “demythologizing” every impossible anecdote and fabulous creature, when one’s self is possibly “a monster more complicated and swollen with passion than the serpent Typhon,” or again perhaps “a creature of a gentler and simpler sort, to whom Nature has given a diviner and lowlier destiny.” That what is at issue is not the interpretation of myth, but the sort of interpretation, we can tell by the fact that later in the dialogue Socrates invokes Eros as a god; that he describes the soul in its chariot borne by two allegorical horses; that he gives the story of writing, invented by the Egyptian god Theuth and presented to the pharaoh Thamus. All three of these stories are arguably myths, and their significance has to be unfolded through the dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus. What Socrates dismisses is the sort of “explanation” that reduces a story of a maiden abducted by a god to one of a girl who fell to her death from a cliff because of a strong wind.

This is not explanation, but explaining away. We may conclude that Socrates would be equally uninterested in questions of where Noah’s ark came to rest, of whether Atlantis “really existed,” of whether Jesus “really” rose after three days. These questions are those of a secularized Fundamentalism: the question is always “what really happened?”

But this reductionism does not express itself only in Euhemerism. As a trend, it will gradually pry apart the easy commerce between discourses that Plato uses so easily. Once the question becomes “what really happened?”, the stage is set for the “answer” to entirely displace the story. There be less and less room for any “it is like…,” any analogy such as Plato might posit to spark a reflection or realization.

Yet Plato cannot have objected in principle to the question “what really happened?” The distinction between truth and falsehood, Parmenides’ “it is” and “it is not,” is the philosophical distinction!

Indeed. Philosophy is an effort—I believe it began as an intentional and advised effort—to preserve the sense of participation even as it acknowledged the force of the critique of participation. That critique was very powerful, corrosive, potentially unstoppable. Of course a crocodile attacking a man is different from an attack by men with tooth-studded clubs. The varieties of trees will come to be seen as not “really” aligned with planets, nor minerals with syllables; these correspondences are arbitrary. The grammar of ritual and sacrifice is a thin tissue of superstition. The laws of the city, of court and cult, were invented by the powerful to keep the gullible in check and at their service. Why should we bother to heed them?

This is the condition of nihilism, the condition in which “everything is permitted.” Philosophy has had many other sparring partners (poetry, mysticism, politics…) but never any other real enemy. It arose when participation began to unravel. In the face of this unraveling, more than one response was possible: one could dig in one’s heels and refuse to acknowledge the critique of the correspondences; one could capitulate, shrug and give in to hedonism or despair (not, at root, very different); or one could try, in all ones human finitude, to keep one’s eye on the one thing needful and love wisdom, which meant first of all, believing in wisdom and in love.

These are still the only three real options worth worrying about.


  1. We see these three possibilities often in philosophy.

    You have:

    Hegel has (the lectures on the Christian religion end with):

    Nietzsche has:

    Always Philosophy tries to find a way to reconcile the other two. In my opinion Plato too shows this. The Republic, properly speaking, begins with Socrates constructing a City; it is denounced by Glaucon as a 'City of Pigs'. It is a City in which everyone minds their own business. Again, in my opinion, the City they happen to settle on - they've been talking all night! - is but a City of Pigs that these particular 'exceptions' can accept.

    In practice, the History of Philosophy has been an attempt to build a City in which both the common people (those faithful to Nomos - Law and Custom) and the exceptional (who only believe in themselves) can thrive. Of course, it is an Impossible Task.

    But, since the exceptions can be trusted to manage the merely possible, philosophy has pitched its tent here.

  2. A nice piece of writing there, Skholiast.

    I wonder, which of your options is the flight into idealism? It seems to me that the chasm that opens between us and the objective world as imagined by idealism is an alienation and a withdrawal from participation. Would I just be taunting you if I suggested that the incommensurate I and Thou is also a symptom of a dissipating participation? When Abraham walked with God did he tremble?

    Do you think the modern struggle with nihilism is qualitatively different than the ancient one?

  3. which of your options is the flight into idealism? It seems to me that the chasm that opens between us and the objective world as imagined by idealism is an alienation and a withdrawal from participation.

    I think Idealism was at one time a serious and viable philosophical move, and like all such moves retains a legitimacy. In its positing of a link between the phenomena and the mind, idealism, even qua correlationism, is an attempt to name the truth of participation. Our modern struggles can recuperate any past moves if we do them consciously.

    Would I just be taunting you if I suggested that the incommensurate I and Thou is also a symptom of a dissipating participation? When Abraham walked with God did he tremble?

    I think one definitely sees signs of the dissipation of participation in the Bible. The Abrahamic moment seems pivotal in ways I don't yet understand ("yet"!) The thing is, later on, no one "walks with" God in this way. No one sits down with Him in the cool shade of a tree. This gradual withdrawal is very clear when you step back from the narrative arc of the Tanakh (I am not the first or even the tenth to point it out).

    In the Septuagint, there's an addition to the book of Daniel that does not occur in the Masoretic Text, a short episode usually called the Story of Susannah. Susannah is a beautiful woman, who two lascivious dirty old men ("elders") spy on at her bath and then try to blackmail her into giving them sexual favors. She refuses, so they accuse her of having a liaison with a young lover; but Daniel questions them separately as to the sort of tree under which they observed Susannah at her supposed tryst. Their conflicting answers demonstrate their lie, and they are executed in ways that pun with the names of the trees they named in their false testimony.

    This sort of story would not occur to one of Levy-Bruhl's stock natives.

    I do suspect that at a certain point this fading, this eclipse, was noticed. Indeed, the whole New Testament is a kind of story about what comes next, once God has shrunk to a point, once God has withdrawn even from God ("lama sabachthani?")

    Barfield--a very strange thinker, Anthroposophist, Coleridge scholar, philologist, much more influential among poets than philosophers I think-- holds that the injunction against idolatry (which of course accompanies the I/Thou "cleft") is indeed a law against a sort of participation, a kind he calls "original." He does think that consciousness is evolving (pr perhaps "called") towards a sort that he calls "final" participation, one which is among other things aware of itself in a way that original participation was not.

    Do you think the modern struggle with nihilism is qualitatively different than the ancient one?

    Yes and no. I mean, at root, nihilism is nihilism. But like many people, I am tempted to make claims of "well, but this time it's really bad". I do think that there are real possibilities of the planet being ruined, for all practical purposes irreparably, and this strikes me as new, but who knows, really, how far back those roots stretch? In any case, the only real question, "How shall I live?", is still relevant. (I might also put it, "what must I do to be saved?", if I didn't fear eavesdroppers).

    Plato says we live in the metaxy. I think all philosophy risks, in its decadent phase, becoming either dogma or nihilism. What's more, any philosophy worth its salt must know in its very pulse the compelling siren of nihilism as well as the lure of a sort of fundamentalism. Since these are each other's mirror-images, I tend to think that the stronger one's gut recoil from the one, the more likely it is that one is an infected 'carrier', so to speak, of the other. (I suspect myself of being far more of a nihilist, but I am likely to strike many as a dogmatist, so I am not sure).

  4. Joe,

    you make me worry just a tad. Does philosophy always just try to stage itself as this via media? And what distinguishes this self-construal from, well, ideology? Don't get me wrong, I agree with you, but I'm playing devil's advocate.

  5. dy0genes, there is also medieval nihilism. While the ancient and modern forms are both, in some sense, political and secular 'demytholizations'; the medieval form (Occasionalist, Nominalist) was religious.

    What do I mean by nihilism? The reduction of the perhaps too rich world (too rich for humanity, I mean) to words and will; that is, to what can be said and what can be done. I am thinking here of Sophists like Thrasymachus and also our Postmoderns.

    Now, of course, the Occasionalists and the Nominalists did not think of themselves in this way - they thought of their God in this way! Their God could do or say Anything He Pleased. And by Anything they do mean anything. If this God were to indeed act inordinata, a New Order would come immediately into Being.

    At bottom, our postmoderns and also our modern Constructivists think this of themselves!

    skholiast, you devil you! What philosophy is to genuine philosophers is something we cannot know without being one of them. How many of 'them' are there? Old Jacob Klein supposedly once gave a lecture in which he said the number of genuine philosophers was in the teens! But I would not count them up quite so strictly...

    Now, since we are not genuine philosophers how do we come to 'know' philosophy? We watch what they do. And what they 'do' is manufacture reconciliations of the factions of their times. These factions are not merely two, btw. The exceptions are always divided into two or more factions.

    Technically, Hegel counts the theologians of his time (i.e., those sitting in those lectures on religion!) as belonging to the party of Enlightenment. This should not surprise a reader of Nietzsche; after all, he draws our attention to this fundamental split and reveals it to be between the ruling priest and warrior (i.e., the political) 'castes' in GM.

    Of course, Plato does not seem, in any obvious manner, to treat the religious in this way (i.e., as 'exceptions' or 'enlightened' sophists). Why? Because it was not necessary; the Platonic monotheisms (that he, perhaps inadvertently, helped create) had yet to rise. This counting of the religious among the self-proclaimed 'knowers' only becomes possible, or (if you prefer) necessary, long after Plato...

    So, philosophy is endless responsibility for, and reconciliation of, the human things. "And what distinguishes this self-construal from, well, ideology?" Ah yes, the $64 question! - Without being a genuine philosopher, I really very much doubt that it can be so distinguished...

    An answer that both is and, I fear, will be thought to be, a little more than a dollar short and a day late.

    But it only these various factions of Enlightened Sophists that need to 'know' everything. As Nietzsche correctly indicated, genuine philosophers don't believe there are any men of knowledge...

  6. Joe,

    I know that I am "only a scholar," but I do aspire to love wisdom. I guess strictly speaking, in this Strausso-Kleinian mode I would have to call myself a philo-philosopher or some such garish polysyllable. In any case, being a "scholar" in the sense I use it does not excuse me from the trouble of thinking things through for myself. ...sigh...

    (interestingly (or maybe not), Ken Wilber cites I forget which contemporary Zen Master as saying that the number of completely enlightened beings in any given generation is very, very small too.)

    Your definition of nihilism-- The reduction of the world to words and will; that is, to what can be said and what can be done-- is provocative and making me think hard, for it feels right but seems to leave something out, which may have been at the motive for dy0genes' question about the difference between ancient and modern nihilisms. You are right to point out the difference of both of these with the medieval version. But what strikes me is that the modern version is able to frame itself in such a way as to claim the mantle of realism-- the very opposite, one might think, of Protagorean "what can be said and done." Brassier's Nihil Unbound, for instance, expressly rejects correlationism precisely on the grounds that it is this sort of protagoreanism; Brassier shrugs and says, "the universe doesn't care-- that is the truth, not a hypothetical (and therefore evadable) undecidable. Deal with it!" I take this to be nihilism as well. However, it is very interesting that Harman (who of course does not side with Brassier as re. science) expressly reformulates occasionalism.

    So I guess I would say: (post)modern nihilism does make the equation you state, reducing the world to 'what can be done/said'; but unlike the ancients, the modern nihilists do not see themselves this way, nor do they like the medievals see God this way; they see the world this way. Today's equivalent of "God can do whatever He pleases" is the indifference of the void.

    I might offer a Rosenzweigian perspective here and say that collapsing or hyper-inflating either Man, World, or God leads to dogmatism &/or nihilism, but I would want to think this over before I got too specific.

    In any case, the philosopher might ask the medieval nihilist: of course God can 'do as He pleases,' but what does he please? and are there grounds for this? (Euthyphro). So too, to the modern one: of course, the universe is indifferent and does not care for the good; but what is this Good it does not care for?

    You are right to point out that the 'exceptions' have more than one faction. I also think that dogmatism and nihilism, being shadows or flip-sides of each other, can do scramble-assembly mix-&-match dances assembling new positions (gnosticism & 'magic' often turn out interesting combos this way). This is not surprising, as philosophy, as I said, does the same thing in a way, since it can always try to retrieve the truth in an outworn set of symbols.

  7. I concur with dyOgenes, good post.

    "Deep thinking is attainable only by a man of deep feeling and all truth is a species of revelation" said Coleridge in a letter to Tom Poole. In various places Plato asks 'well what do the poets say'. The identification of the poet with the sage or seer that has direct access to truth is an ancient one. I think it is an idea of Barfield that in ancient times that poetry was the language of formal communication and prose was a later invention. Certainly in History in English Words he shows that the concrete root is the fundamental one and that in every case the abstract is derivative. There is an ontic grasp of the concrete that is the mark of great poetry. The poet shows a world in the making (poien). In a curious way the Homeric cliches assert the constant return that forms our consciousness and tunes us. They are like the stroke of the tuning fork or the refrain in traditional poetry.

    Whereas in later times analogy became an indicative device, in that time when there was a fluid interplay between Mythos and Logos analogy was a symptom of corrospondence and sympathy and 'connect only connect' was easy and distinguish only distinguish was the hard thing.

  8. omb~~ I may need to stage a post on Barfield alone sometime; he has been a very significant thinker for me; perhaps too much so to summarize. As you rightly suggest, the 'ancient quarrel' (a lover's quarrel) between philosophy and poetry is very much of the essence here. Analogy is a term that arises later to account for what had been taken for granted. Homer certainly does use simile to great effect "as when a lion scatters a flock...", in a way which to me shows the hint of the poet as aware of what he is doing. But compare Homer or Hesiod with Plato's myths (e.g. Er) and the world is entirely different. Homer's simile causes his warrior and the lion to blur together, rather than stand opposed with a logical operator mediating between them-- a gorgeous trick that I think must be attributed to the forward motion of the poem, the fact that it is an oral event. The more writing intervened, the more difficult this becomes. Also, these similes are so often stock ones that fill up the hexameter. A significant figure in this evolution is Stesichoros, who starts to abandon these stock expressions with much more inventive phrases-- something that could not happen without writing, I think.

  9. Yes, you are right, it is very interesting how nihilism has 'moved' over the centuries:

    Ancient nihilism was belief in the words/deeds of the Sophist (I, Thrasymachus, am the Truth).
    Medieval nihilism was the belief in the (at least always potentially) capricious all-knowing, all-powerful God of the monotheists. (I Am That I Am.)
    Late Modern nihilists (as you suggest), following Nietzsche, tend to see the World as 'Indifference' Itself. (The World, in all its contradictions and movements, is True.)

    This probably should not surprise us. Doesn't Plato, in the Sophist, show that the Sophist continually changes his spots? What is interesting in the above list is how yesterdays philosophy tends to become todays nihilism. Thus Plato's unchanging substratum becomes the capricious monotheistic God of the religions (these Platonisms for the people) of the medievals. Still later, the indifferent Aristotelian 'First Cause' resurrects Itself as (the totality of) the 'World' of these (post-)moderns.

    So yes, it is as you say, the Philosophers "always try to retrieve the truth in an outworn set of symbols." But the Sophists also make use of 'outworn sets of symbols'...

    Even though we live in a time that celebrates 'choices' and possibilities, I think that there are far fewer than normally thought. The 'new' is quite often the old, albeit with different packaging.

    Now, since sophistry continually changes so too must philosophy. That is one problem. Another problem is that the City (you know I mean civilization) and Philosophy can never be the same. The one is, and can only be, built on Myth; the other is the unremitting search for actuality. This requires more than a good deal of finesse on the part of philosophy. But the exceptions, masters of indignation all, will have no trouble demonstrating that this 'finesse' is also nihilism.

    (to be continued...)

  10. Still another problem can perhaps best be illustrated by a vignette from Plutatch:

    "[Agesilaus] was noted for being exceptionally fond of children, and the story goes that at home he used to play with his toddlers the game of riding a stick as a hobby-horse. When one of his friends caught sight of him, he urged him not to mention it to anybody until he too should become the father of children himself." (Plutarch, Sayings of the Spartans)

    This little story warns us that it is difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate the words-gestures-deeds of parenting without being a parent. Of course, this specific difficulty is mitigated by the fact that Agesilaus' friend (like each of us) was once his father's child.

    So how much more difficult it must be (given the rarity of genuine philosophy) to speak of philosophy without yet being philosophers! Yet here we are, you and I, doing just that... again.


    PS. Given that the Sophist, and indeed, Civilization, continually move, it is not surprising that what was once Philosophy becomes Nihilism, and, I very greatly fear, vice versa. The City is always a construct of myth and fact, and Philosophy must always be mindful of that. So, it is not always the easiest thing to tell philosophy from nihilism. And, over time, the contents of one and the other may switch back and forth. Perhaps this is why Nietzsche valued forgetting so highly...

    And if one is unlucky enough to not forget? Then one sees nihilism and philosophy exchange positions. Nietzsche once indicated that the inability to believe a 'noble lie' is also nihilism. Apparently, the ability to remember multiple noble lies can also lead to nihilism...

    And the way out of this mess? Plato already wonders where philosophy would be without Eros. - Bryan, if Reason is our _only_ guide we are surely doomed.

    PPS. You say that, "collapsing or hyper-inflating either Man, World, or God leads to dogmatism &/or nihilism..."
    Indeed. And let us all pray that the gentle goddess Sophrosyne, with averted eye and modest mien, will unleash the Erinyes on any who overstep their bounds.

  11. "Indifference" is a curious trope. It is almost impossible to countenance without transforming it into a weird version of malevolence. (e.g. Stephen Crane's famous little poem in which the universe fails to experience "a sense of obligation" when Man reminds it that "I exist.") Yet it is very close to the Stoic (& Christisn & Buddhist and generally ascetic) ideal of apatheia, which is also of course an attribute classically attributed to God. (Hartshorne writes against this conception of God in some portions of The Divine Relativity, and it must be said that it is obviously muted in Christian theology.) Nietzsche observes (& not just him of course) that we project upon God (or make God from) our highest ideals & values; what happens when we transfer these to "the world"? Do they turn into vices?

  12. Your work is quite useful for me as I may be investigating a parallel subject in the minority approach to Christianity officially termed via negativa, but standing for much more than mere negative propositions about God, but that mere propositions fall to the wayside in direct experience of God. This Saint John, Saint Teresa, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, and in line with this, Georges Bataille, who for me is the sole 20th century thinker attempting to retreive the experience you term metalepsis on its own terms.

    This is the trail I'm beginning to follow in the link I shared on my comment on your post on Levi-Bruhl and participation, and my recent post on the Confession of Chalcedon you commented on.

  13. In section 7 of Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche explains the joke old Epicurus made at Plato and the Platonists expense. They are "Flatterers of Dionysius", that is, they are all actors, flatterers of power and/or 'the people'.

    So, of course, in section 8 we expect a denunciation of acting. Nietzsche is the great anti-Platonist, is he not? Well, perhaps not as much as all the world believes. Section 8 is, rather surprisingly, a denunciation of the 'convictions' of the philosophers!

    "Adventavit asinus, Pulcher et fortissimus."
    (Along came the ass, beautiful and strong.)

    Nietzsche quietly defends the actor Plato (and the actor Nietzsche!) by attacking convictions.

    Now, section 9 mocks both philosophical 'acting' and philosophical 'convictions' (of the Stoics). The Stoics want to live 'according to Nature'. But Nature is defined by Nietzsche as Indifference itself. That is, "wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purposes and consideration, without mercy and justice, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time; imagine indifference itself as a power..."

    And he asks the Stoics, "how could you live according to this indifference? Living - is that not precisely wanting to be other than this nature? Is not living - estimating, preferring, being unjust, being limited, wanting to be different?"

    Then Nietzsche suggests that 'living according to nature' might mean 'living according to life'; and he then asks - how could you not do that? Nietzsche is upbraiding the Stoics because they lied to themselves.

    Section 9 ends with Nietzsche naming philosophy 'the most spiritual will to power'. So, then, what is at issue here? Should philosophers be authentic or be actors? If the World in its Totality is Indifference how could it possibly matter? On what basis would one choose?

    'Live according to Life' is the 'interpretation' Nietzsche offers of the Stoic dictum 'live according to Nature'. But again, Nietzsche immediately asks (regarding living according to life) - "how could you not do that?"

    Indifference requires anything or nothing, but life requires whatever its particular circumstances demand. Indifference teaches that there is no reason for either acting or convictions. Life, however, can demand either acting or conviction. (Or both.) Nietzsche demands that the genuine philosopher not lie to himself. But here there is no such stricture against philosophical acting...

    What is Indifference to us; shouldn't we be speaking of life? The first appearance of the phrase 'will to power' in BGE is here, at the end of section 9 and our meditation on acting and conviction.

    Perhaps the question we are intended to ask is whether the Will-to-Power (and indeed any 'metaphysics') is a conviction or an Act...

  14. I tend to see nihilism as the correlation of the belief systems that arose in response to man's dis-enchantment, his awakening from participation. Positing an ideal world is a false move. The rational undermining of that move is inevitable. All the world religions are meant as a salve and a replacement for the original experience of participation. They are all flawed in that to replace the lost they try to create impossible and unreal expectations. The modern nihilism has the opportunity of not repositing these delusional systems. We could instead embrace the idea that we are not the children of god, the Buddha did not enlighten the world with his awakening, there is no salvation because there is nothing to be saved. We have the opportunity of a kenosis of man. When we have emptied ourselves of our delusional expectations and quit the neurotic spiritual drive we may find we awaken again to a new type of participation. Perhaps it is only a dispositional thing but I take great comfort in the thought that in the end the clever animals must die. This makes it clear to me that nothing matters but the moment and the people and experiences before me. My life is my own work of art. It may be an ice sculpture made for the fourth of July but it is mine to share, however briefly, with those I love. I suspect that the great difference between the ancient and the modern nihilism is that we have the perspective to resist the adolescent romanticism of self inflation, the elevation of our own minds to godlike status, we can accept the limited nature of our reason and participate in it all again with the innocence of children.

  15. Joe~~it strikes me that a lot of this can be read vis-a-vis James' "will to believe" (which Nietzsche might well (mis)read, "why not, rather, untruth?"). James' formula was, you will recall, pushed against the claim that "it is always wrong to believe anything w insufficient evidence". The intersection here between the ethical and the epistemic is notable here, and resonates with the dual critique of participation that Barfield notes; a scientific (Greek) one, and a moral (Hebrew) one.

  16. d~~ my own reflection over the [meaning of the] death of the clever animals has gone through many stages. I am fascinated by the strength of the "illusion of immortality," which one might call the first and last "geocentric" illusion: the fact that (as Freud puts it) the unconscious is immortal, i.e. unable to conceive its own nonbeing. Franz Borkenau turns this into the mechanism for an entire theory of civilization. Wittgenstein observed that the notion of immortality does nothing at all to solve the mystery of life-- life is not made any less mysterious for being indefinitely extended, after all. As the conscious mind eventually wrestles its "theoretical" acknowledgment of its mortality, always in the teeth of the unconscious' implacable, oblivious, plugging-its-ears "na-na-na, can't-hear-you" denial, the inevitable fallout is terrific despair over the death of the clever animals, the sense that if this is so then somehow nothing matters. The only answer that is a real answer is the one you give, I think: that this moment matters, and it alone. This is of course Nietzsche's response finally. But what is quite stunning is that this too is the answer of the great religions, finally. It is amazing that this answer can itself be given a nihilistic or a "believing" (if that's the word) cast. ("Faith" is perhaps better here than "belief," but unfortunately all these terms have been debased now). Clearly the Christian and the Atheist (for instance) can both say "only this moment matters," and clearly they don't mean exactly the same thing--but if they are wise, neither will accuse the other of being in mere bad faith either. Something deeper is going on. This is hard, hard to unriddle. What is best for man? Never to be born? My own faith is that this answer is wrong. In this, at least, I am clearly not a Buddhist.