Giving an honest self-inventory; or, how to be post-ironic

The literary scholar Christy Wampole has called ours an “ironic age” in which “directness has become unbearable to us,” and in “How to Live Without Irony,” her New York Times Stone essay that appeared in this Sunday’s Review, she provides some clues for how we could live in a post-ironic manner.  These clues include

saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values. It might also consist of an honest self-inventory.

Saying these things in print is only a start, however, and the genre of the essay–whether personal or academic–ends just as the art of self-transformation begins. As Pierre Hadot argues in his interpretation of Thoreau’s Walden,

the true problem was not to write, but to live in the woods, to be capable of supporting such an experience, as difficult in its ascetic aspect–life in the woods–as in its contemplative aspect and, one could say, mystical aspect–this plunging into the heart of nature. In other words, the philosophical act transcends the literary work that expresses it; and this literary work cannot totally express what Thoreau has lived…

In the email I sent to Wampole, I touched upon the need for “honest self-inventory,” an account the Pythagoreans ask us to give daily in the Golden Verse. In my philosophy practice, I try to set out (what I take to be) the four necessary conditions for self-inventory in and through dialogue. I insist that, during any philosophical conversation, a conversation partner

(1) prepare himself to have a philosophical conversation,

(2) speak with me outside of clock time and in the time of eternity,

(3) engage with me only in plain speech, and

(4) that he say “I don’t know” when he really doesn’t know the answer to a proper, well-formulated question.

Under these conditions, we can get on with the business of making an honest self-inventory of our lives.

But this is not all. What must be remarked upon further, as is alluded to in Hadot’s words about Walden, is the act of self-knowing, which is not rational assent solely but a spiritual exercise.

Yesterday afternoon, I happened upon an excellent passage from Ilsetraut Hadot’s essay, “The Spiritual Guide,” an essay included in a book called Classical Antiquity. Ilsetraut Hadot, like her late husband Pierre Hadot, claims that knowing is a resonant, resonating habitus and that the role of the philosopher is to be that of a spiritual guide and friend. She writes that in the ancient philosophical schools

the widening of knowledge occurs very gradually, and the fundamental dogmas have to be memorized [p.452] again and again after, or simultaneously with, every advance in knowledge. For what is desired is not knowledge, but rather knowledge as habitus, the transformation of the individual through knowledge. The heterodox Stoic Ariston, who, in the statement cited here, agrees with all ancient philosophers except the Skeptics, states: “Philosophy is divided into knowledge and state of mind. For one who has learned and understood what he should do and avoid is not a wise man until his mind is metamorphosed into the shape of that which he has learned.” (Ariston in Seneca, Epistulae Morales 94.48)

First of all, the elements of knowledge must be appropriated, which is a purely intellectual process. Then, knowledge must be impressed upon the mind in such a way that it is always at hand and that it cannot be limited or lost on account of any external circumstances—in other words, in such a way that it becomes one with the individual and a constituent part of the person’s being. This second stage can be attained only through practice and habituation with the incorporation of one’s emotional components. Let us take as an example the dogma ‘Death is not an evil,’ which was professed by all the ancient schools of philosophy. The philosopher-spiritual guide knows that it is not sufficient to know this and to be familiar with and to have grasped intellectually the philosophical proofs that are the foundation for this statement; one must be convinced to such a degree that one’s whole inner nature is penetrated by it.

Knowing itself just is knowing oneself, just is coming to know oneself through the difficult work of transforming one’s whole nature. If you wish to be post-ironic, then far more will be required of you than reading an article: more than retweeting it, more than studying it, more than writing about it, more than teaching a course on it, more than publishing a book on it. All of this may be an invitation to philosophical life but it may also be a distraction: a labor of ignorance, error, and habit.

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6 thoughts on “Giving an honest self-inventory; or, how to be post-ironic

    1. I would say eternity is a necessary condition for plain speech. In eternity, one could also be speechless when ‘surrendering’ to the ineffable. In eternity, there can also be laughter or crying.

  1. Thanks, Bruce, and no worries. I’m fortunate that my ongoing philosophical conversations with conversation partners help me to practice direct speech. Hadot, in a different context, has a wonderful expression. He says that Plotinus urges a “conversion of attitude.” Learning to speak directly and plainly seeks also to effect a “conversion of attitude.”

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