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, October 12, 2016

The Long and Short of it

The huge tome is a sort of material icon of philosophy. Well do I remember myself as a thirteen-year-old stopping by the local branch of my county library, browsing though the small philosophy shelf and repeatedly taking down, and putting back, this unwieldy thing called Being and Time.

On the other hand I also encountered this story about the Delphic Oracle saying that Socrates was the wisest of the Greeks, and Socrates shrugging and saying, Huh, Must be because I know I don't know. What I mainly think I remember about this was how it seemed to be bound up with the maxim carved in marble in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo: Gnothi s'auton, Know Thyself.

These two examples, the heavy heavy book and the brief proverb, are not just opposites, they are are like poles, or maybe inverses.

My own notebooks are comprised of one continuous "entry." There are paragraphs, but there are no dates, and no headings. The "subjects" change, of course, but each one turns into the next, they way one topic of conversation leads on to another. I chose this mode of expression long ago, foolishly or well, as a conscious attempt to marry "stream of consciousness" writing with crafted prose. It is one way of enacting my strong intuition that there is no difference in kind, no cutting-at-the-joints, between the so-called Big Questions and the ostensibly trivial concerns of our ordinary lives. It's also a way to try to use words to make an image of experience, which after all is continuous except for when we are completely unconscious. I suppose this "break" is itself shown in the fact that I have not been working all these years on a single, endless scroll, but individual notebooks, of which there are quite a number now. When I finish one, I start another. I pick up where I left off, but that may or may not be obvious -- it isn't always to me, when I look back. I don't assume anyone will ever want to read them (or maybe even be able to -- they are all in my cramped and sometimes hurried longhand).

It seems clear to me that behind this idiosyncratic way of writing lies the image of the "Big Book," something like The Phenomenology of Spirit, or Ulysses, or Newton's Principia, or The Faerie Queen. Doubtless, much too much verbiage is vomited out by people who think that an abundance of words is a sign of depth, or at least will disguise (from themselves especially) its lack. But there is a real truth and dignity to the idea of the magnum opus, even if few attain it. Schopenhauer insisted that The World as Will and Representation was in fact as short as it could possibly be, and I see no reason to doubt his good faith.

But lately I have been thinking about the other pole of articulate wisdom: the aphorism -- even the "fragment," that favorite form of the brothers Schlegel, among others. Those little jewels with hidden stings that Pascal, Lichtenberg, La Rochefoucauld, Nietzsche, made. The single lines that everyone -- with good reason -- remembers from Wittgenstein, even if they get them wrong ("Whereof one cannot speak...") The lines from poems that have entered the language. Žižek likes to point out that proverbs and adages all cancel each other out (the classic example is "Look before you leap" versus "He who hesitates is lost"), but so what? Did anyone who coined such a phrase think they were establishing some never-controvertible bit of advice that would withstand every change in context?

I have a small collection of those I consider to be, not just memorable or clever, nor just a catchy way of enshrining practical advice, but real wisdom, summaries that could be engraved on a temple and could perhaps ensure that philosophy could be reinvented ten thousand years later. I've written about a few of these before: Kant's pairing-up of starry heaven and moral law. Lewis Thompson's remark that "You can escape in a moment; but only in a moment." Last year I mentioned my meditations on Exceptio probat regulam.

There are others. Most notably, the opening line of the Tao Te Ching --

The Tao that can be named
is not the eternal Tao
I don't care how often this is cited, or mis-appropriated; it remains a speck of articulate wisdom around which silence can actually be organized.

For a long time now my emails have gone out with a tag under the signature, a quote from John Berger: "Authenticity comes from a single faithfulness: that to the ambiguity of experience.... If a writer is not driven by a desire for the most demanding verbal precision, the true ambiguity of events escapes him." The maxim, which Augustus supposedly liked and which became featured in the printer's trademark of the renaissance printer Aldus, Festina Lente ("make haste slowly") has always seemed to me a beautiful summary of the synthesis of urgency and deliberation which is philosophy. And of late I have again been using a slogan, on the three-word pattern like the French Revolution's tricolor: Enquirie, Camaraderie, Faërie!

If anyone has their own favorites, I am interested to know of them.