Philosophy ‘Puts Everything in Danger’

A commentator on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War writes,Everyone likes security and dislikes danger; everyone wants to live and fears death.” Nietzsche in Ecce Homo describes the philosopher — and here he is thinking of himself, of the Dionysian philosopher par excellence — as “a terrible explosive which puts everything in danger.”

There are hindrances to entering into war just as there are hindrances to entering into philosophy. We are naturally inclined to not want to die, to want to preserve ourselves, and so we quite naturally yen for safety, comfort, security, peace at a high premium. When we are in jeopardy of losing it, we grope for it; when we suspect it of fragility, we fear its loss. Similarly, we do not want to investigate ourselves for fear of what we might discover about ourselves. What ordinary lies could be disclosed, what self-deceptions unmasked? What ugliness could devastate us? What horror might unravel us? What truth, we fear, ultimately unwind us?

Just as military men must cultivate thumos or anima, a spiritedness, a warm-bloodedness, a forcefulness to step forward and press on, a hunger to engage–all so difficult to translate into English, so too must those of a philosophical disposition.

The risk in both warfare and philosophy is that one will be turned about and thereby have to face one’s own death. Much in The Art of War is devoted to the surprise attack, and much is made of the conceptual difference between “emptiness” and “fullness”: attack when the enemy is “empty,” without energy, wise leadership, sound strategy, or high morale; do not attack when you are “empty” but hold back; pursue when you are “full.” You will be turned about, Sun Tzu says, any time that you do not follow the Dao expressed wisely in this Daoist manual of war. Everything tells for winning without fighting, for that surety, that mastery of self. Expect otherwise to face death before you would like.

Even more forcefully than warfare, philosophy encourages us to face our death by welcoming the surprise of being turned about. For philosophical inquiry, I argue, is an unrehearsed genre whose chief aims are to reveal to us what we do not know but thought we did and to bring us to a greater sense of clarity than we could have possibly imagined. The first moment of philosophy, then, is marked by a knowledge of one’s ignorance. And let us be clear: it is the greatest knowledge of the profoundest ignorance about what matters most in my life. In The Art of Inquiry, I try to show that we must first have a “confrontation with our way of thinking in general” before a higher truth about ourselves, a truth about how to live, can be disclosed.

In my philosophy practice, I can easily recount: there was a woman who, throughout most of her life, thought herself an introvert, only to discover that she was utterly, completely mistaken. She was turned about. Then what really turned her about was the discovery that she, who had been happily married for nearly two decades to a respectable man, was gay. Then there was the arrogant Englishman who found out that his arrogance had ruined his marriage. He too was turned about. Also the young woman who’d been engulfed by her oceanic mother, been modest and fraught to a fault, but that no more owing to her growing autonomy. Also the American poet and lawyer who actually died for a few instants and has since been freeing himself of his illusions concerning the desirability of literary fame, wealth, and power. And the older Danish woman who finally gave up on “making her mark” upon the world. And the young Swedish man enjoined to face up to, and rid himself of, his desire to equate being perceived by others with a life that matters. And…

Only now do the martial and the philosophical outlooks readily part ways, revealing a crucial disanalogy. For the warrior may be courageous yet with what wisdom? Too rashly or too hot-headedly might he devour his opponents and, in such cases, with no other cause besides malice and ferocity. Blazening on, he may lose his way–and his moral compass. A courageous act may be a very foolish, not to say a stupid or vile, act.

Philosophy puts everything taken for granted in danger (it does), and because of this it has the greatest responsibility to take care: to take care of thoughts, words, and acts. Given this danger as well as this responsibility, philosophy must be at once tough and truthful. It cannot back down, give in, fold up, or become meek in the face of examining life, in the contest of exposing, the pursuit of turning it all over. It must stand forth, hold firm, face up, and press on but all the while with a lightest touch of grace, with gentleness, with composure. Philosophy breeds, values, and honors tough grace.

At the same time, philosophy must be ruthlessly, unceasingly, unfathomably truthful. “Say what you believe. Is that true?” “Watch your words. Are they correct?” “Observe your actions. Do they square with your claims?” “Follow along wherever the inquiry goes. Are you following or have you drifted?” Each day a wisdom exercise. Each day an inquiry. Each day disgust with self-deception. Each day utter devotion to truth and truthfulness.

The task of philosophy is to overturn every inclination we have to put the fearful in front of the good life. It severs the tie with this inclination, cultivating our higher powers of attention and love. Was I born to be a terrible explosive that puts everything in danger? Yes, yes I was, yes to it all. But only — remember the greater clarity than could have hitherto been conceived of, remember this too — to let grace fall on those who join me in this.