On the Consolations of Philosophy

Yet another post triggered by working on The Iron Heel, this one less political than autobiographical and (quite literally) philosophical.

One of my characters in the ensemble of the current production is a pettifogging sociology professor. Early in the play, the hero (played by the excellent Charles Ouda) lambasts my character and his colleagues at some length for being “metaphysicians” rather than “scientists”. We were well into the process, probably already into performances, when the personal resonance of those speeches hit me with a big clang. I had read widely in philosophy, widely enough to know just what the character was talking about, even the peculiar way in which he was framing it.

Most mainstream contemporary thought (I don’t think I’m too bold in asserting this) has empirical science as its primary point of reference, not just in academia, but in most of the other major professional realms: journalism, politics, the arts, and even business. Absolute exceptions are rare. Modern adults are empirically oriented by default. They base their decisions upon data or the news. They may suffer from bad information from bad sources, but their method is to seek out the facts and weigh them. This is true to a large degree of people you may assume mightn’t, such as the deeply religious, who partake of such things as economics (modern business methods) and the media the same way everybody else does.

This was not yet true at the time when Jack London was writing The Iron Heel. A revolution was taking place in London’s time, one that was not just social, political and economic but absolute. It was influenced by thinkers as diverse as SpencerDarwin, Marx, Freud, and (William) James. What these and others eventually achieved was a revolution in thinking that puts the collection and evaluation of data front and center in nearly every field of endeavor. That change in our thinking is now so complete it is unquestioned. But that transformation has also been quite recent, at any rate more recent than you might think. It was clearly still contentious in London’s time, well into the 20th century.

What existed prior to that revolution? London refers to it as “metaphysics”, but in doing so he is being provocatively facetious and dismissive. Essentially, he is referring to pure philosophy, which used to occupy a much greater portion of the academic sphere than it does now, and an altogether more exalted one, so much so that it was still crowding out this “upstart” empirical science from encroaching on its prerogatives as late as 1908! Unthinkable but true. Indeed, it lasted longer than that, if pop culture is any bellwether — college professors were still being portrayed as possessing this weltanschauung in movies and plays and books as late as the 1930s.

The modern university system had been founded in the Middle Ages. The assumptions of western philosophy (as established by the ancient Greeks) were a large part of what defined it. Metaphysics were at the center, but perhaps only because existential inquiry is the most vexatious of all questions. But its salient difference from the modern outlook is one of intellectual method. Rather than automatically going to the material world for answers, it looks inward, building self-contained chains of logic and reason.  To the modern observer, it can look like the very definition of sophistry — a form of intellectual masturbation. In its day, it was what defined academic rigor. And indeed we rely on this mode of thought a great deal to this day, any time we make an argument, lay out a case, grope towards a conclusion. We draw from facts, but then we organize them into ordered portraits of reality. The old way, I think, was to perhaps place less emphasis on the constant gathering of updated facts. Certain premises were taken as “givens”, and that was enough. In our day and age, metaphysics, which is purely speculative, is about the only realm left where you could still get away with that. London’s Iron Heel character Everhard rails against Aristotle, but probably the most crystal example of the Aristotlean system gone wrong is Ptolemy. To solve what the stars are, you need to look at the stars, directly at the stars, not build upon ancient edifices created out of people’s heads.

Yet metaphysics has a place. This post was occasioned because it dawned on me recently how central to my worldview is the old system of pure philosophy. It is central to my thinking, it drives and informs my assumptions, and it orients me in the world quite a bit differently from people around me, most of whom tend to be either religious or scientific but not the third way, which is to be philosophical. It’s not that I am not religious or respectful of science. It’s that my default place is philosophical doubt and (attempted) Socratic humility, and I see both religion and science through those lenses. I believe in God, but I think it hubris to rashly define him (or her). I believe in observable facts, but I think they have their place and their purpose, and those are not coterminous with the sum of Everything.

I have been sitting here trying to figure out why I was driven to classicism. Now that I think of it, a major influence in my life (other than the English and drama teachers I often write about) was my high school Latin teacher. I took Latin throughout high school, and had a semester of it in college. My high school Latin instructor was one of my favorite teachers. Among other things, he was extremely funny. He’d originally studied to be a priest, I think, and he didn’t teach Latin in a vacuum. He taught the culture of it. So I spent a good deal of time with my head in Rome and the Middle Ages, and the stuff we translated was usually drawn from the literature of those periods. This has to have been the foundation.

When I left high school I was cast out on my own and spent three years reading classics, the core of which was philosophy. During those years I can recall reading Plato, Euclid (crucial to the study of logic), Xenophon, Aristotle, Cicero, Plotinus, Plutarch,  St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, (among others, and not including poets, novelists, and playwrights, of course). After I finished the conservatory a couple of years later, I worked at a bookstore, and in this second phase I tackled many more including: Epicurus, Lucretius, more Cicero, Seneca, Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, Montesquieu, Berkeley, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Bentham, Hegel, Emerson, Nietzsche, Bergson, Heidegger, Sartre, Camus and many others (including the above-mentioned Spencer, Darwin, Freud and James. I tried Das Kapital a few times without much progress).

Haha, hoo boy, does this bring back memories

I hasten to point out the course outlined above was all through solitary reading. It happened without a teacher to guide me, no discussions with fellow students, and (while I did do quite a bit of scribbling inspired and informed by this reading) no disciplined, academic writing. My understanding of these thinkers could be incomplete, it could be incorrect. But it is also my own. And it is also at least a partial understanding of them, which is more than what most people have.  (For the record, I did take a Philosophy 101 course at my local university but it was worse than useless. And later at NYU I did read lit-crit related philosophers like Foucault, Baudrillard, Barthes, Bataille, and others with the guidance of professors).

What good is it? people ask. I’m sure even asked it when I first encountered the ideas of some of these thinkers. But that very question reflects a bias — bias rooted in the very orientation of our times I described above. Must everything in life produce a tangible, material, measurable good?  Science cures diseases, and makes miracles affordable, and supplies us with Better Mousetraps. That’s terrific, but to my mind, as a thing to strive for, it is also superficial and even somewhat boorish. It is not only not inspirational it is not aspirational. What is the point of being alive, if you aren’t questioning, if you aren’t trying to figure it out? The general tendency is to say, “You’ll never solve the problems of existence, so what’s the point? What’s the point of doing something pointless?”

But that’s backwards. The act of questioning itself is what gives life meaning. It’s not some finish line you get to. To know the answer is to be dead! To ask the useless question “Why are we here?” is part of the same category of human activity as dancing, savoring food, making love, swimming in the ocean, appreciating art, making art. There is no reason for it. It feels good to do. It feels good to make something, to build an edifice, to chase something.

What myth?! It’s real, I tell you!

Some (many I listed above, and others) come away from the grappling with despair or something close to it. Their conclusion is that “nothingness” is the answer and that reality is depressing. But they still keep flinging themselves against the question like a moth against a window. They like to do it. Sisyphus likes rolling that rock. It’s painful. It hurts. It’s actually unending misery. That’s what it is to be self-aware. But self-awareness is also GREAT! It’s who I am! It’s the stream of consciousness that begins when you’re born and ends when you die. It’s the life bursting inside you. How can you not be attached to that?

And it is a small step from here to the theatre I love best. The Greeks of course and Shakespeare and that profound farceur Moliere and in modern times the Absurdists. One of my favorite critical books (perhaps THE key book for me) is Robert Brustein’s The Theatre of Revolt, which casts key 20th century playwrights in this very light, restless, frustrated askers of the metaphysical question.

The title of this post is intended ironically. There’s a subway ad I’ve seen from time to time promoting classes at some “School of Philosophy” which promises “happiness”.  And I always laugh at it, which I guess reflects a cultural bias on my part. I could see perhaps an esoteric philosophy, an Eastern philosophy promising and even delivering something like happiness. But Western philosophy offers nothing of the kind. The branches of Western philosophy concerned with human happiness split off a long time ago. We call them Political Science and Economics. What remains is the delicious agony of metaphysics.

Here’s an irony for you. To return to where we started: despite London’s holding up of Marx as the model of “science” (and similar behavior by all his apologists to the present day) his thought is actually mired in the same metaphysics as those earlier Aristotleans he criticized. Marx based his ideas on the Hegelian dialectic, a preconceived notion about the way history works, a system into which he and his followers attempted to fit all subsequent developments whether they fit the picture or not. Ironically, the “science” happened in the West, where freedom of inquiry allowed the unimpeded flow of data which permitted greater material well being for millions. And the way of Marx proved Ptolemaic.