Philosophical life as conversion experience


Marilynne is a beautiful idea. I am not sure that she will ever become a reality. Marilynne, my daughter, is a reverie.

And how did the name come to you?

I read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and was so taken with the name Marilynne that I knew she would be my daughter. I am starting to love these sounding Southern names. All so full-mouthed, dusk land, scratched with Hebrew.

Philosophy as Conversion

What is required of one to hear the call of philosophy? For one to have ears to hear? One must already be in the midst, already on the verge or near the edge of conversion in order for the call to be taken as a call, to be heard as such. I write only to those with ears to hear.

If the other does not have ears to hear, then the call can never be heard. The call to philosophical life remains ever elusive, esoteric, words shared among those turning toward conversion. The words of the philosopher can only be heard with ears to hear by his or her fellows, nearing light. To the rest they are but mouthed, played with, ‘liked’: sheer bullshit. Philosophy must penetrate our entire being.

(Inquiry is the world-soul of the converted.)

This chimes with an orientation toward the Good. Re-read David:

An older conception of philosophy should be recalled. For the ancient thinkers of Greece and Asia, philosophy was less a body of knowledge than a practice of self-cultivation or self-transformation, of right attunement to the world. [Cf. Hadot.] Philosophy, for them, was orientated in the first instance to the Good, not to the True, even if attainment of the Good turns out to require respect for the True.

This ancient conception contains an important lesson. The proper response to questions about life–including ones about an appropriate relationship to nature–is not a narrowly cognitive one, not a matter of mouthing a correct answer. For in order for answers to penetrate–to be ‘deeply cultivated’, as Buddhists say–and thereby to shape one’s life, the mind must already be appropriately attuned or transformed. ‘Life’, we hear, ‘should be lived according to nature’. Certainly–but if the words are not to remain glib, pious and formulaic, they must be heard by someone suitably attuned; emotionally and physically prepared for the words to penetrate. Philosophy, on the ancient conception, is a precondition for hearing. (Convergence With Nature, pp. 15-6, my emphasis)


I have been foolish, for I have carried the belief that I need to explain myself when such cannot be the case. That I had to justify myself to strangers. That I had to give lines to those without ears to hear. Yet if I am leading a philosophical life, then I should not heed, should not feel the urge to explain myself. Among friends, the urge is nowhere to be found. Only, we are here.

Doubtless I can explain why a painting is beautiful by giving reasons for holding this aesthetic judgment. I can explain why a child is crying by tracing a causal story. Yet I cannot explain myself, though god knows I have tried. I must let go of the very idea of explaining myself for to do so is to speak to the uninitiated whose questions, in truth, are accusations. “Give us an apologia pro su vita.”

Therefore, I need pay no attention to common questions. If the questions are commonly asked, then they are doxa. And doxa are considerable misunderstandings. “You are a therapist, no?” This is not a question but an accusation. “A life coach?” I must learn to be silent and smile and walk away.

Andrew, do not speak in Public Forum. The man without body asks, “Who polices matters such as abuse?” Do not reply to the faceless man, the unknown other. Do not get caught up in stipulative definitions. By X, I mean… By Y, you mean… Do not field objections. Do not defend or not-defend. Avert exhaustion beforehand. Never seek to win or avoid losing. Do no more than stand firm in silence. Or walk on in reverie. Or walk, away.

I hear often from journalists who like philosophy, from life coaches, from psychiatrists who like Plato, from philosophy students, from existential therapists. I used to think in terms of a coalition, but in the past few days I have finally realized that I am being ‘forced’ to speak in words that are not my own. I want my own words only, words that are ours, those participating in philosophical life. In philosophical life, I do not want to bend my words, to feel forced to bend them, making them ‘fit’ or ‘conform’ to strange others’ understandings–which is to say, to their misunderstandings.

I speak now, as to myself, speak without the urge to transliterate.

I cannot speak sensibly to most unless we are engaged in idle chitchat or open-ended conversations. That is fine, but it would be wise to stop trying to think of philosophical conversation as possible with those who have not already been touched to the quick by philosophical life. I have observed myself moving toward this understanding and have given myself credit. Now I must complete the transformation by being firm but flexible with myself.

(What do I do with non-philosophical life friends who do not ‘get’ me? Can they be friends, or are they simply acquaintances? I must be more observant.)

The other must come to me of her own accord, out of a life-hunger. Nothing else can bring her here, nothing but the force of a gun. And most words are like guns. Be mindful of this, Andrew.

The philosopher will never be paid in splendor, never receive coin of the kingdom, though she is the most important figure that could exist. Beside her, all other occupations are as nothing.

Socrates died penniless.

Meditate on Socrates’ penury.

(Still I roam–why? Why puzzle? I puzzle: it is puzzling that philosophical life–openness to inquiry, a way without doctrine, a kind of perduring via philosophical friendships–should be so ‘esoteric’ with respect to modern culture. How can we talk so natteringly about climate change without first considering whether human life matters enough to perdure? Besides, who ever said that the earth was Eternal? And: how can we have children unless we have reason to hope that their lives could go well? But then what do we mean by ‘living well’? My God, how do anything unless we had some good reason (or could hit upon some reason) for believing that doing so matters? It seems philosophical life is so elemental to life itself yet so distant from people’s lives in particular. How can they have no ears to hear, especially those who have ‘studied’ philosophy ‘in school’? How be alive without being alive to life? My God, why do anything, let alone be anybody? These questions make me want to weep. NB: It is not for you to ‘save’ them or to ‘hold contempt’ for them. Be gentle, be gentle with them, only be gentle.)

I have longed too long for public recognition. If there is no philosophical gospel to spread, then there can be no desire to spread it. Focus your attention on only your own, on your philosophical kin, on this tree and this friend and that lover. Rid yourself completely of the desire for public profiles, for public recognition. Do not desire fame: vainglory. Nor celebrity: only for a season.

The cosmos is vast and I am puny. Nothing special.


Philosophical Life

Meditate on attractive life. On radiance: virtue expressed as beauty.

Do not hold others in contempt. Perhaps they will have ears to hear when it is their time. Dickinson: death kindly stopping by. Old Emily was funny, a damned funny old lady.

Find better ways of acting rather than (merely) speaking. To do more in concert with conversation partners so that they will have ‘just enough’ so that they will be able to feel joy like mine. Our joy. Words alone can angle away from our common life together. Temptation.

I think of flower scenes, of latticework, of lives like flower scenes and latticework. (Are these just words? No, they are virtuous graces. Radiance.)

We need strength to be able to carry on together. It is so easy to turn our eyes away from each other. I have said my fair share of “fuck this” and “fuck that” and have returned. Fidelity to philosophical life.

We do not want to simply put one foot in front of the other with great effort until our days are over. We do not want to fight ourselves anymore. Life is not meant to be fought. We want our feet to shimmer like lace, our words to approach us like morning breath.

Watch boys whacking the ball with their small sticks. They are not striking the rolling ball with great force. They are not beating the ball into the ground. They are not trying to beat the ball, to get ahead of it, to race in front. They are carrying on, staying with. In their acts, they are using finesse, applying gentle force to aid the ball’s course, mindfully caring for its career. They want to keep the ball rolling in the right direction, to redirect it should it swerve or canter. In media res, no one takes credit for the caring, urging, or coaxing. Only the hubristic novice seeks to stop the ball from rolling or aimlessly thwarts it, the fool, forcing it, forcing it, forcing it.

Consider: a good philosophical inquiry is like keeping the ball we adore rolling along in the right direction.

Philosophical inquiries are stitched into philosophical lives.

Philosophical life is not yours or mine but ours. It is not owned or possessed, appropriated or expropriated, imported or exported. In our time, we dwell within it and die, dwell within the tradition of philosophical inquiry without which we would be lost, we live and perish but it goes on. It goes on because of us yet without us. (Because of us or by means of us? By means of us.) We die and hope only that it lives on.

We live and we die.

We live and we die.

We die.