A philosophical education

1. Paraphrasing Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations (where Cicero is himself paraphrasing Plato), Montaigne gives us the famous remark that to philosophize is to learn how to die. We prepare not only by banishing the fear of death through understanding, however, but because in contemplation per se we are most acquainted with death. While initially Montaigne calls contemplation a withdrawal from our bodies, contemplation is a sort of resemblance or mimesis of death by which we are ultimately liberated to our bodies (not from them) in the pleasure of life.

We prepare for death not by thinking about death but by a desire for the good. This is why, for example, Spinoza insists that one who is free “thinks of nothing less than death” (E4p67). The paradox is that thought is like death but it can never be of death.* The liberation of thought from death consists in being (of) death without letting death appear before us, which is why for the Epicureans the thought (of) death manifests as ataraxia instead of Angst, i.e., an affect of life as a dialectical negation of death (to think (of) death is only possible by not thinking of death).

*Significantly, in his allusions to the third way of knowing, Spinoza never satisfies his promise in the Ethics to discuss that part of the mind that remains after the body perishes.

2. If we learn how to die (which, instead of a “preparation” for death is actually learning a desire for the good) by thinking, it is necessary that we learn how to think. It is not surprising, then, that the same duality in thinking (of) death is that which we find in those who teach us most purely how to think. There is always and necessarily a sort of trickery involved in that lesson: we are led to believe that we are learning “about” something (else) when, in the end, we realize that the (real) object of our thought is simply “how” to think. It is true that philosophy per se enjoins us to think—by convincing us that we must think when and because we usually are not—but there are those who grasp that we cannot say that what we’re thinking about is how to think on pain of reflexive failure. Yet such reflection is precisely what essentially philosophical thought accomplishes, i.e., to show that ultimately what is thought “about” is (thought) itself but only by making it not “about” itself. In short, thought thinks thought (Metaphysics 1074b35) not by thinking itself.

Consequently, the problem of philosophical expression is intrinsic to the attempt to think. There are many ways—not all of which may be successful but a significant step is taken by the recognition of the problem—of thematizing the possibility of philosophical expression (e.g., (eidetic) intuition, the speculative proposition, more geometrico). The tendency toward mysticism results from a fundamental confusion either between (1) the limits of thought and what is actually constructive of it or (2) the relation between thought and being. The proposition that “the True is the Whole” or the ontotheological thesis of the One-All mistakes a reference to or representation of totality as if it were something other than (discursive) thought because of the timorous conviction that that which cannot be thought must be other to thought (which is correct) and whose otherness must fall on the side of being (in other words, the mistake is to posit that that which must be thought for thought to think “itself” is not itself, yes, but neither is it on the order of being). What all the pure thinkers (of) thought have grasped is that there are no forms of thought but there are only performances and repetitions.

Tragedy I (1 SEPT 2005; edited 5 JUL 2007)

There is a political message in Inferno XXIV: “Now you must cast aside your laziness / … / … for he who rests on down / or under covers cannot come to fame; / and he who spends his life without renown / leaves such a vestige of himself on earth / as smoke bequeaths to air or foam to water”. But this “renown”, as Hegel showed us, is only the reciprocal recognition of one’s love in the world. One loves the world by becoming its mirror (I wonder if the converse is true). That the intrepid wanderer refers himself to the Christ is well-known; this is why Dante’s Christianity prefigured Hegel by 500 years.

Dante’s “io sol uno” becomes, in Montaigne, “je le recite [l’homme]”. Montaigne describes a man and not, as Rousseau, of man. Thus the innocent naïveté of Montaigne vis-à-vis the totalitarian naivete of Rousseau. “If the world finds fault with me for speaking too much of myself,” Montaigne says, “I find fault with the world for not even thinking of itself!” What could be farther from the modernity that has come to us in the guise of bourgeois liberal democracy? Mimesis is mandatory because we are never ‘outside’ the world. Auerbach was on to something here; so too was Nietzsche who asked whether he could show us this world—this “zoological monstrosity” as Jameson says—in his mirror. But as we know, it was Nietzsche’s own shadow that drove him to madness. … And perhaps that is the fate of any truly ethical engagement with the world.

A friend of mine likes to say she is “broken”, as if this were an insight. We “pull ourselves together” every morning. We do it better or worse, but we must do it constantly. There are times we “lose ourselves”, but is not psychic activity nothing else than the assemblage of an identity in fragments? There is, as Bergson points out, only memory.