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.



A quartz crystal send-off: A few words of counsel regarding how to put life in order


My article on philosophical practice, “Counselling: Putting Lives in Order,” The Philosophers’ Magazine 57, is now available here. It was written in August and, though somewhat dated, still holds its own fairly well. It is also the most comprehensive account of my philosophy practice that I’ve written to date. Enjoy.


I thought it was time to say farewell, at least for now, to one conversation partner. Not wanting to leave her empty-handed, I wrote her a letter whose purpose was to cast light on the steps of the path leading toward philosophical life.

The two photos below are courtesy of two lovely conversation partners. You know who you are. (The Oracle of Delphi pun is intended.)


You initially wrote that you lacked discipline. Being more disciplined (read: “hard on yourself”) may be necessary in the interregnum, but it is not an attribute or disposition that can figure wholeheartedly in a philosophical life. I have learned that most of our concerns and questions in this life are not, in the final analysis, volitional. They rarely have to do with being “weak willed” or “strong willed.” Rather, they are axiological and phenomenological, having to do with what we care most about and how we stand in the world. If we can see how we fit into the order of things, if we can understand where our life is headed, then we can act with a sense of joy. In the present alone, I am overjoyed. Now I write to you not out of a sense of discipline but because I feel called to you, feel I must leave you, for now, in good stead. I do not want to leave you stranded, so I write in order to point the way forward.

You wrote of your lingering desire for ambition and I replied that ambition is a losing policy for living radiantly. To begin with, it presumes that I must accomplish some grand mission with my time on this tiny earth, some scheme without which my life will have amounted to nothing. Second, it implies that there is an infinitely high social ladder that I must climb and keep climbing, end over end, all without end, all, in the end, without satisfaction. Third, it stakes my being an agent on the recognition of strangers, strange peers, abstract colleagues, on their good opinions and here-today-gone-tomorrow allegiances. Given world enough and time, ambition will sour us to life. I have suggested instead that we think in terms of doing good work and that we attend to our way of being in the world. A good life, made up of good work, is not restless but serene and constant.

Nonetheless, there are two truths lying dormant in ambition. The first inchoate truth is that we long to be seen and recognized by others. This truth can only be fully realized, however, once we shift our focus from achieving social status to cultivating good friendships. Good friends see us; distant acquaintances look past us.

The second inchoate truth of ambition is that we long to be authors of our lives. Yet to become authors of our lives, we must focus our attention on the simple and beautiful idea of doing good work. Does my work, does what I create bring joy to others? God I hope so.

We have spoken about financial matters, about having just enough. For a while, you have not had enough. I am sorry for this. Know that, in this neoliberal economic order, a few have too many and most do not have enough. Paul Mason speaks of a “lost generation” of those now in their 20s; the term could be extended to those also living in their late 30s. We, you and I and other kindred spirits, will probably have to let go of the equation that “having just enough” = falling within a standard metric of yearly income as measured by the modern state. Instead, we will have to ask, with the Daodejing, how having just enough will make it possible for us to give to our lovers and friends with a free spirit and light heart, to offer only to our fellows on the order of infinity. We do not, and cannot, want to live with the idea that our generosity is a form of self-sacrifice: that our giving to others is at the same time a taking away from ourselves. But neither do we wish to hoard. What is more, we cannot live well so long as our basic material needs go unmet. So, learning how to “have just enough” will make it possible to love ourselves and our friends up to our utmosts.

I have introduced you to some like-minded people. It is now up to you to keep on with this, to say your good hello’s, to give your warming words. I want to remind you that friends, acting as a palladium, shield us from a hostile world, friends see us for who we are, friends help us to inquire about ourselves, they come to our aid during lean times, they knock on our doors when we need them most. Through them, we learn to do the same. On this score, one good friend of mine wrote with special insight: “Long before I knew how to be a friend, I was befriended.” It is ever so, going back to our births, back even before then.

We are living during a time when the makeup of the family is changing. Let us not fight this; we do so at our own peril. We will have to let go of the idea that our flesh and blood family will likely be our closet kin. Most of us have been nomads roaming endlessly in strange lands, finding our blood families lying far across the cold celadon sea, physically and philosophically speaking. Our closest kin will have to become our friends and lovers. Let us be OK with this, because it is good, because it is OK, because it will have to be.

I never told you something I now believe to be true. I want to share it with you now. It is that all our letters, if they are written well, are always love letters. Truly, I think often of this and hope you will find significance in this thought also.

Remind yourself that you will often be misunderstood. Individuals who ask ‘interesting’ questions and do not follow the ‘normal’ paths of wealth, prestige, or pleasure cannot hope to fit into the reigning social order. Do not bother trying, for it does not follow that you cannot find your place elsewhere. Should you walk in harmony with the Way, you might meet way-farers singing scythes and rolling thatch. Roll your fingers through the volcanic ash and think of making a home among the first sprouts. The soil is good here.

In this brave new world, we are returning, above all, to elementals. To enjoying simple pleasures, to discovering the infinite value in the ordinary, to making things with our hands and eyes, to becoming kinder and gentler with ourselves and our fellows. Live this way and you will be fine. I do not mean fine as compensation for something of equal or greater value that has been lost. I mean fine in the Greek sense of kalon: of what is “excellent,” “noble,” and “beautiful.”

The mirthful canopies of spring

My friend was at the front door at half past 9. Joan yelled down, “Who is it?” I was already sitting near the door and admiring the spring morning when the doorbell sounded.

“Who is it?” she tries again.

“A friend, Joan, it’s a friend,” I yell up.

“Huh? Who is it?”

“Don’t worry, it’s for me. It’s my friend.”

I let my friend in, I run upstairs, and Joan goes back to bed.


My friend has brought oil of Arnica, a homemade pear and basil pastry, my copy of Seneca’s letters. I hand her my Marcus and my Hadot. We sit in the back garden, the patio cool to our bums, watching three feisty sparrows get into a row. They butt heads and she eats her orange. The pinks and violets, the oranges and yellows are ludic, mirthful, all redolent of a midsummer night’s dream.

Another friend brought me grapefruit marmalade made by hippies in New Jersey. The product tag is written in dippy cursive by a company called Eat This. Under the ingredients, a line reads “gotta love it!”

Another friend sent me dates, three, telling me that she was “assembling the Seder plate, thinking of symbolic foods, you, Catlin.”


I walked along the mountain path, in mind to see Wise Elder. I said to him, “Come now, Wise Elder, do not hold back but tell me what a good life is and how I might live it.”

Wise Elder simply pointed to my hand–for I was still carrying the pastry, the marmalade, the dates–and said nothing.

‘The infinite value of life itself’: 3 examples of spiritual exercise

“I did nothing today,” the man says.

“What?” Montaigne replies. “Did you not live? That is not only the most fundamental but the most illustrious of occupations.”


This week a number of conversation partners have spoken to me about spiritual exercises (ascesis), asking further about what they are and how to practice them. (The post I wrote this week on ascesis can be read here.) Pierre Hadot provides us with a nice formulation of ascesis, saying that “It is a matter of telling oneself a phrase to provoke an effect, whether in others or in oneself, thus under certain circumstances and with a certain goal” (The Present Alone, p. 135). The term, “a phrase,” should not be misunderstood to mean only a few words; it could very well be an argument or line of thought, provided that the argument or line of thought is aimed more at “forming” than at “informing” self and other. For the practitioner of ascesis–that is to say, for the philosopher–it is best to practice ascesis when surrounded, either in imagination or in reality, by philosophical friends.

Below, I briefly discuss three kinds of ascesis that occurred to me and that I practiced this past week.

Love the Ordinary

During the past couple weeks, I’ve listened to many conversation partners talk about being adventurous, having gone through experimental periods, yearning for change and excitement, and I thought, “I’ve never felt that, that desire for the extraordinary, that desire for flight and travel and the exotic. Why is that?” I think it’s because I’ve come to love the ordinary.

Hadot’s words about Socrates chimed with me. “The example of Socrates is interesting,” he says,

because it is not the doctrine that one attempts to actualize, because it is difficult to know what it might have been, beyond the enigmatic affirmation of non-knowledge. Rather, what one is attempting to actualize, what becomes a philosophical ideal, is his life and his death entirely devoted to others, devoted to making them understand themselves, to making them better. I would readily believe that it was Montaigne who best understood the essence of Socrates. Finally, I think that those whom I called existential thinkers [i.e., those who first and foremost seek to lead philosophical lives, not to discourse on theoretical matters] were right to recognize the exemplary philosopher in Socrates insofar as, by living a simple ordinary life, he transfigured it by the awareness he had of the infinite value of every instant of his ordinary life. (124)

The last line vibrates the body, begs for a second and third reading, longs to become a chant: “the awareness… of the infinite value of every instant of his ordinary life.”

I spend most days loving the transcendent turn to the ordinary and thus have no desire to be elsewhere or otherwise than how I am, where I am, who I am. To practice “love of the ordinary” is to feel this tranquility, this communion with the diversity of experience lying dormant in the everyday.

Love Unfolding

I have spoken to many conversation partners who are impatient, ready for change to be through, for their lives to finally be put in order. This is puzzling because we do not want our child to be through or a tree to be through. Rather, we love attending to their unfolding, with unfolding occurring in a certain direction.

“Love unfolding” was a formula that occurred to one conversation partner and me at the end of our conversation last night. The double entendre is especially apropos: to love that which unfolds and to conceive of love as the kind of activity that unfolds its essence. We love the myriad things coming to be what they are, and our love is precisely the kind of attentive openness that unfolds over time.

Here is a simple exercise. Attend to an ordinary tree every morning. Or attend to your growing hair. What changes? What unfolds? What colors, what hues, what astonishments? You can regard exercises like these as both good in themselves and as preparations for the more muscular exercise of loving how our lives always and ever unfold.

Love the Last Dawn

One of the great ruses in human life is the inductive fallacy: the fallacy that the present and future does (or must or will) resemble the past. The expectation creeps in most everywhere. If someone gets in touch with one at a certain pace, then the inference one makes is that this person will continue to do so. If someone pays a certain amount, then one can continue to “project forward” that same amount, can count on it.

This expectation belies the precarious nature of human life, banking on the assumption that we and those dear to us are not going to change or die or go away. When we “project forward” based on the past, what are we doing save forgetting the precarity of human life and hiding our faces from death?

The Stoics laughed at this, knowing that they may not wake up in the morning. Epictetus saw each day as a gift, saw that our lives were “on loan to us.” I cried this week in joy at the thought that I am already living on borrowed time; I knew my life was already full and complete.

The exercise, then, is not just to ‘intellectualize’ the experience of death but to awake with the ‘vitalist’ sense that the day is a blessing, a blessing because there seems no reason to believe that we might not have awoken to this day. The mood should be everywhere, not least in and through the body. The day might have been, someday will have been, without us. This exercise sweetens the day immeasurably.


Hadot says, “One finds in this passage from Montaigne [the one cited at the opening of this post] the recognition of the infinite value of life itself, of existence; this reverses all the habitual values and especially the pervasive idea that what counts above all is to do something, whereas for Montaigne what is most important is to be” (my italics).

‘Why not me? Why not now’: On the collective loss of ethical life

My good friend Jennifer has shared with me her philosophically rich personal essay, “Attention” (forthcoming). In “Attention,” she relates that she is traveling by train from Detroit to Chicago. Not far into the trip, the train stops abruptly. The passengers are informed that a man has stepped in front of the train that had been heading at 79 mph and that there would be some delay in order for an investigation to be completed. Though the employee’s words are shrouded in euphemisms, we can infer that the man is dead.

Perplexed, Jennifer observes her fellow passengers. A mother and son are watching videos. A young hipster is getting drunk, chagrined that he will be late for, or will miss entirely, a party later that night in Chicago. A young boy talks on his cell phone to his girlfriend who confides that she has befriended another boy on Facebook. The boyfriend is not pleased with this news and expresses as much to her. All the while, Jennifer has read and re-read two lines from Simone Weil’s book, Gravity and Grace: “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.”

Early on, she asks herself, she asks us, “What is our obligation to this dead man whose body parts are being picked up outside as we sit and wait?” And also: “What is our obligation to each other?”

I want to disentangle obligations from attention, Kant from Weil, in order to show what has gone awry in modern ethical life. I want to show that Law and Order has supervened on a lost form of life, abstraction having supplanted an attention to the face to face. I want then to conclude that the meditation on death may provide us with one precarious path back to each other.


Let us begin by analyzing an abstraction: the concept of obligation. An obligation is an abstract norm (an ‘ought’) which I make and to which I bind myself. The “I” refers to two different subjects in the last sentence. There is the rational “I” that makes an obligation, and then there is the empirical “I” that is bound by the obligation.

To illustrate this relationship between the abstract rational and embodied empirical, I cite a quote from M. Frayn’s Russian Interpreter (1978) out of the OED: “If someone entrusts me with something I feel a certain obligation to take care of it.” In this example, the rational “I” (the lawmaker) makes the obligation (to hold onto a particular item) while the empirical “I” (the upholder) fulfills it (holding onto a particular item until the owner asks for its return).

An obligation may seem a redundancy, for why would the one to whom the item is entrusted not simply hold onto the item? Why, in other words, would he need to state the obligation? To see my puzzlement, compare:

1. Parents have an obligation to care for their children.

2. I, simply, care for my child because, simply, he is my child. (Montaigne on his friend: “Because I was him, because it was me.”)

The answer is that, in the modern world ‘after the loss of the virtues’ (Alasdair MacIntyre’s phrase), there arises the need for rational principles, the purpose of which is to motivate us to do what we ought to do despite the fact that they we may desire to do otherwise. Our desires, on this metaphysical picture, do not accord with our principles, our pleasures are out of touch with our duties.

Come back to the quote from Frayn. Consider that, when the time comes to look after the owner’s item, the friend may desire to do otherwise. Hence, the friend who fulfills his obligations is staking the universal claim that rational norms trump individual desires. At time T, he therefore binds himself to do what he ought to do at time T’ with the aim of ensuring that he does not beg off his duty when the time comes for him to perform it.

By my lights, what goes awry with this picture of morality is that abstract principles have come to supervene upon a lost ethical life imbued with shared virtues. When a social order is in harmony with nature, then friendly we’s do not speak of “ought” and “must.” They attend to their neighbors and see to their guests. “Ought” would be, always, one word too many. Nor do they appeal to Law (or construct Law) when something goes off track. They shake hands and kiss each other on the cheeks, thereby making amends, thereby restoring ethical life.

In ethical life, a friend would not say to himself, “Buck up. I must watch over the other, must keep my word to see about the other’s things.” A friend, simply, would care. There would never be higher thoughts of obligations, duties, laws, and principles.

But if this is true, then how did abstract principles come to trump shared ethical virtues? How did we cease to become friends to each other, how become strangers to ourselves and each other?


Arguably, the rise of commercial society in the seventeenth century made it possible to conceive of man’s chief interest as self-interest and, at the same time, to regard the other as a means to his calculated ends. (Albert Hirschman’s short book, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before its Triumph, written in 1977, is still a tour de force, for in it he shows how the novel concept of “interest” and “self-interest” came to replace the Christian vice of avarice, thereby paving the way for market society. As a methodological point, it is important to see philosophical ideas and conceptions as being formative of material culture.) Kant’s Groundwork of a Metaphysics of Morals is, on my reading, a reply to the rise of market society and a potent argument for its limits.

Kant distinguishes between “fancy prices” and human dignity. Kant thinks that human beings have a dignity that allows them to transcend their value in the marketplace, and that higher value is to be found in their rational capacity for making and holding themselves to law–a law, that is to say, that I qua rational person can give myself. The humanity formulation of the Categorical Imperative states that human beings are only ever to be treated as ends in themselves, never as means. This abstract formulation serves as a bulwark against the universal sweep of market logic.

Be that as it may, Kant’s critique of the limits of market society is admirable but misguided. Insofar as it obliges us to recognize the rational capacities in other human beings, it checks the universalizing tendency of the market, i.e., the tendency of the marketplace to turn all kinds of values into commodities. (How much is that beautiful tree in Central Park worth anyway?) The trouble is that Kant requires a universalization of abstract reason in order to defy market logic. That is, if we are to rise above our own narrow self-interests, then we must regard ourselves from the standpoint of abstract persons and at the same time we must also learn to regard others in this fashion. To defy one form of universalizing abstraction, Kant appeals to another, equally abstract, equally universal sort, if one that resonates in a quite different key.

From this vantage point, we come into the marketplace as first-order strangers, only to engage in moral reasoning in the guise of higher-order strangers. In neither case do we see or get to know each other. Instead, we move further away from each other. The result, some 300 years on, is the professionalization, specialization, and outsourcing of our ownmost cares: the professional nanny, the hospice care worker, the professional shopper, the professional chef, the consultants, and so on. Our needs, held at arm’s length, are tended to by strangers and mediated through economic transactions on one hand and by abstract moral reasoning on the other.


We do well to remind ourselves how novel is our inherited conception of morality as an abstract rational activity. As my friend David E. Cooper has argued in Convergence With Nature: A Daoist Perspective, our modern conception of moral life

combines two thoughts: I should determine what I do by considering what it would be good for people in general to do [our Kantian inheritance], and what it would be good for them to do is to produce certain practical results [our consequentialist or utilitarian inheritance]–increased welfare, reduced suffering, an improved environment, or whatever. (142, my italics)

Like my friend, I do not think that morality construed either in deontological or in consequentialist terms gets us very far. The idea that every time I go to the store I should determine what any other rational person would also purchase seems to me a non-starter. The claim that I have a set of duties to abstract others (Kantianism) or that I had better calculate the highest utility for all abstract others (utilitarianism) already assumes that I live in a complex modern world characterized by bureaucratic institutions, mega-cities, division of labor, a high degree of specialization, and a general lack of acquaintance with my fellows. I have come to regard talk of the environment, climate change, carbon footprint, universal gay marriage, human rights, and so forth as non-starters for the moral life.

Must we begin our moral considerations from the claim of universalizability, or could our ethical life have gone otherwise?


The early Hegel and Laozi share the understanding of ethical life as living according to nature. In The Early Theological Writings, Hegel says that Jesus contravened the Jewish Law in favor of human need. He writes, “Over against commands which required a bare service of the Lord, a direct slavery, an obedience without joy, without pleasure or love, i.e., the commands in connection with the service of God, Jesus set their precise opposite, a human urge and so a human need” (206). He offers as evidence the following example: “His disciples gave offense to the Jews by plucking ears of corn on the Sabbath. The hunger which was their motive could find no greater satisfaction than in these ears of corn” (208). Hegel is not saying that Jesus opposes one law stating that need trumps all to another law of the Sabbath. It is not one law over against another. He is instead arguing that the virtuous man, simply by seeing that the other is in need, simply plucks the ear of corn. We must imagine a social order in which this form of attention holds sway.

Similarly, Laozi, in Daodejing, bemoans the liquidation of a Daoist way of being in the face of a Confucian legal order. Thus: “When the  great Way is neglected there arises [the lesser Confucian edicts of] benevolence and justice” (no. 18). Also, “Cut off [a prescribed principle of] benevolence, get rid of [state administered] justice, the people return to [a more natural sense of] filial piety and fraternal affection” (no. 19). Once the thou shalt and thou shalt not are removed from social life, once norms given by God, the state, or some form of abstract reason (reason as lawgiver) are dissolved, then people can return to each other, turn toward each other, and live according to the natural bonds of fraternal affection.

Modernity, built out of abstractions such as the state, market society, and formal education, has followed the course of Law and Order. It seems to me that we have now reached the point where we can return to the questions posed by Jennifer’s profound personal essay.


Obligation, I have argued, is a non-starter for shared ethical life. The renewal of ethical life, I have implied, would have to find its footing in the cultivation of the virtues. The trouble is that ethical life has been torn asunder.

Jennifer is right to suppose that attention is one supreme virtue. In her story, what is abundantly clear, however, is that the passengers do not know each other and that the dead man remains unknown to all. In what sense, therefore, is attention to the dead man possible? The temptation, in a case like this, would be to raise the question of obligation once again, to grant the urge toward abstraction, as if it were the only route we could take, the only possible course.

The answer to the temptation would be to set our eyes on attention toward each other. The absent dead man returns us to our flesh and blood fellows. But soon we realize that our fellows are not attending, are not our fellows, are distracted and attenuated. We recall the mother and child beholden to the screen; the man on his phone; the boy on his phone. Consequently, we can only attend, as Jennifer does in the first instance, to their lack of attentiveness, their unwillingness to be open. But is that all?

In light of this strangeness, this estrangement, in light of our collective inability to actualize the life of virtues (above all, of compassion, courage, and attention), there may arise in us a disquieting horror: the horror that we are unknown to each other, every other a stranger to every other, myself no less than another. This sense of horror, this sense of the loss of filiality, is a mourning for the genuine loss of shared ethical life.

This horror should, in its turn, give rise to a further consideration: the premeditatio malorum. The unknown man is dead. I, also unknown, also a mere abstraction, could also be dead, dead unknown. We are dead to each other. As one friend put it to me this past weekend, “Why not me? Why not now?” Where there is no room for attention to the other, still there is time for reflection on myself, on my distance from the other and, in my turn, on my turn to die. “Why not me? Why not now?”

There is no reason why I am alive and he is dead. And there is no reason why the train could not have pitched off the track, crushing and burning us all, singeing my flesh and crushing my lungs. “Why not me? Why not us?” Rather than say, “Thank God it wasn’t me,” can we learn how to say, “How strange that it wasn’t me?”

Outside of the few nooks and pockets where the life of the virtues still thrives, our only possibility for salvaging a sense of shared humanity is through turning our attention back on each other in a moment of mutual recognition of our imminent mortality. We are dead to each other and, like the dead man stepping in front of the fast-moving train, we are going to die, alone and unknown.

We have no obligations, only shudders and recoils. We go to the woman writhing in the aisle, we put our hands on her, her eyes close, we vomit, we awake from writhing sleep, this womb, this woman. Thus are we saved.