Humble elitism: Making the vertical ascent

One who sets foot on the philosophical path may become bewildered when he begins to consider how it is possible not to be arrogant yet also how to ascend beyond the bounds of the ordinary. I have recently come to a better understanding  of how this is possible. More: of how this is necessary.

1. From Charles Taylor in A Secular Age and Peter Sloterdijk in You Must Change Your Life, I accept the thesis that one of the chief features of modernity is the creation of horizontality. Without theism, there is no idea (or at least there is deep suspicion) of the vertical or transcendent (not, in any case, not after 1945 when various forms of quasi-transcendent options begin to appear). In other respects too, egalitarianism is espoused, if not always adopted. And then there is the ‘affirmation of ordinary life,’ which insists that the good life is now identical with the spheres of production (work) and reproduction (family). In very different ways and coming from quite different traditions, Taylor and Sloterdijk both want to ask, ‘What is higher? From what source does it spring?’

2. Many (but not all) of those who come to philosophical life have hitherto been arrogant. As a starting point, this is good. Arrogance would be a force that would allow the newcomer to reject the ordinary goods as being insufficient and who would demand more from life than ‘horizontal endeavors’: pleasure-seeking, creaturely comforts, bourgeois notions, the securing of status. Thus, they would ask, ‘Since this is not enough, where is there more than this?’

3. Good, then, is the arrogant man’s boldness–his daring, his taking a risk, his desire to stake himself on something beyond the ordinary. He wants to make something of himself. Let us say that the arrogant man is implicitly asking, ‘Come now: who and what will test me?’ (The emphasis might also fall on me.)

4.But then the arrogant novitiate would have to be humbled. Humbling happens during philosophizing. Humbling him would involve the philosophical guide’s gently pointing out to him that he does not have the answers in hand. Thus is he now open to inquiring.

5. Only now is the philosophical friend  actually opened to an inquiry into what is higher. What is higher must then disclose itself in its own time. My answer has been radiance, though this answer is rather like an intimation. Radiance, in my considered view, just is the concordance of the beautiful soul with the beauty of the world. This concordance, however, can only be achieved, first, when the salient virtues are raised up to the point of beauty and, second of all, when one can ‘lean on’ the world when it is adequately perceived. The first claim sheds light on the good and the beautiful. The second claim shows that both rest on what is true.

This answer to the question of what is higher can be formulated in this forum, yet above all it must be experienced.

6. It may seem as if this ‘vertical ascent’ sketched in 5. is an act of hubris since it goes beyond the horizontal domain. It is not, however; it is the unfolding of humility. For one is humbled in three ways: first, by what it is that one does not know (the fact that the one who is philosophical, being puzzled by many things, recognizes that he is not a sage); second, by the asymmetry between the philosophical guide, who sets an example, and the philosophical friend, whose vices are still in evidence; and, third, by the sheer height and breadth and magnitude of what is high. The ascent is long and steep.

7. Those around the philosophical friend who is seeking to become an ‘athlete of the spirit’ will charge him with arrogance or, barring that, will be utterly perplexed by the transformations he is undergoing. In the past, I argued that compassion was the requisite virtue to exercise, but now I believe that it is dispassionate understanding.

It is important to point out my past mistake. In A Guidebook for Philosophical Life (2013), I argued that compassion is the antidote to contempt.

We must bear in mind that others will not and cannot possibly see the profundity of change at all; or will see the change yet miscategorize it as applying only to accidental properties (oh my, your hair has grown, hasn’t it?) or localizable to scant anomalies; or will see it as being a change within the same order of being (an unripe mango, say into a fully ripened mango). Suffice it to say, they will not ‘get’ us, the whole remaining opaque, unintelligible, to them.

We need to remind ourselves, and do so often, that the change will remain imperceptible and incomprehensible to the uninitiated and ‘unconverted’; it is not possible for them to follow us. Where we are, they are not. Where they are, we are not. Unless we make this reminder an integral part of our spiritual exercises (ascesis: see Chapter 8), we will run the risk of holding them in contempt. ‘How can they live so trivially, fruitlessly, wastefully? How can they not appreciate the beauty of the forest, the necessity of examining our lives, the possibility of experiencing communion with the Cosmos, the loveliness of the laughter following hard upon mutual insight? How can they not grasp what they are missing? Yes, how waste their lives and, more importantly, our time and breath?’ Yet if we are not careful, we will feel the time we spent with non-philosophical others to start ebbing toward rage: ‘how dare they hold us from our higher pursuits? How dare they hold us back, ask so much pointlessness of us?’

Contemptu mundi–contempt of laypersons and of the run of practical affairs–may set in, is the great temptation. I have given into contemptu mundi too often myself and have been humbled in turn. It is thus only under the guidance of compassion that we can avoid this fate. The compassionate person can look on with infinite kindness at those who do not ‘see’ or ‘hear’ her, having no eyes to see or ears to hear. By means of compassion, the philosopher manages to smile naively–and not pedantically or demonically–regarding all beings from the aspect of eternity. Compassion, thus, is a saving grace insofar as it reveals to us how finite beings ‘fit’ into the nature of reality. If I am not to be rejected, still I am nothing special from the standpoint of the Cosmos. With fresh eyes and in the spirit of naivete, compassion keeps me open to the other: to his beauties, her surprises, their excellences.

This account of compassion makes the error of assuming that one has to have a sense of ‘what it is like…’ for the other who does not understand. But to do so is to enter into another’s world or, in any case, to presuppose the comparison of ‘like to like.’ Not only is one entering too strongly into the affects of others, but also one is coming back to the horizontal plane with the result that one would feel ‘split’ and ‘torn in two’: the horizontal or the vertical? Their world or mine? Which is right?

8. In place of compassion, I want to put a radically different notion: that of disinterested understanding. One learns to simply look on, to become puzzled by others’ reactions, and to ask ‘what is going on here?’ There is ‘no place’ for an I/other structure; it’s rather the flow of discourse, the seeking after an understanding of the other’s confusion.

9. Aleksandra pointed out to me that one knows that one has arrived at dispassionate understanding when one no longer regards another’s replies as even conceivably construals of harm. One would not think that the other is attacking; nor that he is accusing; nor that he is offending; nor that he is casting aspersions; nor that he is insulting. All of these words will have fallen away, revealing only another’s puzzlement about change, the desire for change, the degree of change, and, above all, about the kind of change. We are speaking, I suppose, of the cultivation of a  kind of balletic composure in the face of surprise.


There is no longer a puzzle. First, one can seek to become excellent at the extraordinary despite the horizontal pull of modernity. Second, it is true that one was once arrogant, but it needn’t be the case that one has to be arrogant any longer. Quite the contrary, arrogance makes philosophizing impossible. Third, one can only climb the ‘vertical ascent,’ provided that one is aided by humility. And, fourth, toward those so uninitiated, one can seek to come to dispassionate understanding.