Making perspicuous the connections: Cheerfulness, surprise, and marvel

1. It dawns on me that there is a particular kind of person that I have been trying to describe over the past couple of years. There are three sets of terms that bring this kind of character more sharply into focus: dispositional terms, aesthetic terms, and an occurrence term.

2. The dispositional terms are lightheartedness (as in my book, Cultivating Discipline Lightly), cheerfulness (as in my posts about Nietzsche), chipperness, and eagerness.

The aesthetic terms are fascination, wonderment, perplexity, marvel, intrigue, and disinterested interest.

The occurrence term is surprise.

3. How are the dispositional terms connected to the aesthetic terms and to the occurrence term?

4. A P sort of man is someone who is open to being surprised. By a ‘P sort of man,’ I mean specifically cheerful, lighthearted, eager, chipper.

5. Presented with a surprise, the cheerful man is bound to feel perplexed, fascinated, a sense of marvel, a sense of intrigue, or a disinterested interest about what it is he is in the presence of. His proper response–perplexity or fascination, etc.–would depend upon his right perception of the situation.

5. A surprise is the starting point for an inquiry. Had he not been cheerful (or lighthearted, etc.), he would not have been surprised; he would have passed things by without notice. Had he not been surprised, he would not have been put in the spirit of (e.g.) marvel. Had he not marveled, then he would have never inquired.

6. I am trying to describe a kind of person who is ever on the verge of inquiring. The boundlessness of things astounds him. He is in a certain mood. (A beautiful mood?)

7. Why would any of this matter? Because we too often hear of the ‘happy man,’ the ‘tranquil man,’ the ‘resilient person,’ not to mention the ‘miserable man’ and his despairing cousins. But where do we hear of the cheerful man ever open to surprise, eagerly so, ever ready to marvel, and just on the cusp of inquiring? That must be the best man living the best kind of life!

Orders of beauty: In accordance with nature (2)

Let us remind ourselves of what we have said.

1. The best human life is one that is lived in accordance with nature.

2. To live in accordance with nature is to bring into harmony the good, the true, and the beautiful.

3. First metaphysics. Nature (or reality) reveals itself in its three aspects: finitude, totality, and infinity.

4. Now ethics. The salient virtues of an excellent human life can be ‘read off of’ the aspects of reality.

It is time to turn to beauty.

There are two orders of beauty. First-order beauty is adverbial: it is said in the form of ‘-ly’ or in that of the ‘with P.’ Second-order beauty is prepositional: it is the proper ordering of the salient virtues. In both respects, beauty elevates virtue.

Let us return to the finite aspect of reality to inquire: when do the finite things go well? For the finite things can go well, or they can go poorly. When, e.g., does water flow well? Water flows well when it flows smoothly. It is a question of propriety (neither too much nor too little, neither too much nor too little force, neither overly responsive nor underly-responsive) as well as a question of the rate of movement (neither too fast nor too slow). Water may flow adequately (hence, be virtuous), but it may not flow optimally.

So too a human life. A virtue such as patience may be exercised with competence but not yet with ease and grace. It is first-order beauty that makes a virtue optimal by elevating it to its completeness or perfection. Just as one swallow does not make a summer, so one act of patience does not make one patient. Hence, excellence is a disposition. Yet unlike a competently patient man who is patient by exercising restraint, a beautifully patient man is patient by exercising patience with grace and lightness. He is patience personified.

In brief, first-order beauty, following the best tune hummed by the finite things, elevates virtue by adjusting the way that something is done, said, or demeaned. E.g., said carefully, put elegantly, conducted gracefully, given lightly, demeaned gently, performed softly. In the education of the spirit, one needs to perceive as well as cultivate whatever ‘style’ makes humility beautiful (rather than ugly, blasé, or heavy).  This is, we say, beauty ‘in the way of…’

Now, let us consider the second aspect of reality: totality. Totality is all there is of the finite things. What is perceived through the right form of perception is wholeness. Therefore, to live in accordance with this aspect of reality is also to be whole.

Second-order beauty, accordingly, is an ordering of the salient virtues (of humility, patience, temperance, etc.).  Hence, it elevates by ensuring that the salient virtues are in harmony with each other.  Earlier, I said this order of beauty is prepositional and in this sense: this is beauty of character (or soul).

A clumsy soul has not achieved first-order beauty: an act of compassion, e.g., poorly performed. An ugly soul is distorted (cf. propriety of measure) or is full of vices (cf. impatience, cowardice, etc.), or is full of conflicts of virtues (lacking discernment). A beauty soul not only experiences no such ‘frictions’ but goes on naively, chiming with wholeness, in the sense of second nature.

Conjointly, first- and second-order beauty are ways of going along with nature well while at the same time ‘singing true’ with the whole. Perhaps, we call call this elevated way of being quietness, or perhaps we had better not give it a name but simply appreciate it.

Why is Kenko disillusioned?

All around Kenko are signs of late autumn. The flowers, irregularly strewn yet carefully placed, so completely matches Kenko’s  aesthetic ideas of simplicity, irregularity, and incompleteness–not to mention his ascetic notion of the value of exclusion–that he is taken aback. That a man could live like this is… if not wisdom, then at least admirable. But the tangerine tree spoils everything.


The tree is out of place (it represents ever-fullness not final, fallen moments), it is out of season (summer jutting into late fall), and it is incomparably, greedily unwelcoming (a tree behind a closed gate).

‘And how could the tangerine tree have been otherwise so that it was in keeping with Kenko’s aesthetic?’ my love asked.

Continue reading “Why is Kenko disillusioned?”

On my love of sensualism

I would never have imagined that philosophical life, which seems to privilege inquiry, abstract considerations, mathematical rigor, and mental activity more generally, could open me up to ‘sensualism’ but it has. Perhaps it is that dwelling on how all transient things hang together points me back to this particular thing here, revealing to me a greater appreciation of this white husky or flitting sparrow insofar as this dog or this bird fits into the general scheme of things. Or perhaps it is that I mean to become more adroit with speaking of the specific tones of this melancholic love song. No matter how my ‘sensualism’ came about, it seems as though it is here to stay. I feel the skins of grapes on the backs of my teeth, the textures of leaves and feathers on tips near the nail beds, the scraping of pant legs on wrought iron railings, the crunching of bark shavings beneath boot-steps, the tadpole look of swimming cherry pits and stems, the smell of strawberry knuckles long after the strawberries have been eaten, the hay smells and musty smells and sweet sweat smells, the old book smells and all the odd old house smells. Could it be that I like the feel of newfound moles the most?

Adderall and philosophical life

The Sunday New York Times front page article on the pervasiveness of Adderall use among wealthy high school students, “Risky Rise of the Good-Grade Pill: Taking Stimulants Not for a High, but for a Higher SAT Score” (June 10, 2012), misses the philosophical point. The reporter Alan Schwarz covers the usual suspects–availability, pervasiveness, potentially adverse side effects, rising expectations, and the question of cheating–without inquiring whether any high school student would have a good reason for taking Adderall in the first place.

The nearest to a philosophical point is made by one Philadelphia school spokesman, Douglas Young.

“It’s time for a serious wake-up call,” Mr. Young said. “Straight A’s and high SAT scores look great on paper, but they aren’t reflective measures of a student’s health and well-being.”

The implication is that getting good grades is less important, in the table of values of any human life, than health. The assumption is that health is an ultimate value, perhaps the highest value of modern life. I am afraid that it is not. (Nietzsche convalesced just fine and the other night Neil Young spoke of loving the time of sickness.)

When all is said and done, nothing has been brought into question. Only after one puts into question all the taken-for-granted final aims–success, achievement, ambition, peer recognition, and health–and only after one concludes that none of the above could reasonably count as a final end of radiant life could one come to philosophical life. For Adderall only makes sense as a techne–as a prudential means for a high schooler who wants to achieve the dubious aim, e.g., of getting into Harvard–after one has taken as given the final aim of success. Students bemoaning or lauding their clever fellows, affluent parents bemoaning their children’s surreptitiousness, counselors bemoaning health concerns, and psychologists bemoaning (while profiting from) addiction are all pre-philosophical characters. The proper philosophical attitude toward tedium is apatheia.

I work with conversation partners who have spoken of the horrors of Adderall. Those horrors, however, are not health concerns but aesthetico-ethical claims about a loss of a sense of wonder in the face of mystery, the blanching of aesthetic properties, the fundamental inability to be in touch with the world of others. It is this phenomenological loss of being alive to the sensuous world and to sensuous others that is horrible. Under Adderall, there is no reading aloud Whitman’s Song of Myself with naked limbs and fluttering lungs, no experience of the heights and depths and breadth of the human adventure, no  possibility of the joyous exploration of eros, no cobalt skies or humid hair or cleft-shaped lily pads. When I look closely, I see a diptych: in the first panel, there is the shudder of waste, of cosmic loneliness; in the second, the sober, eternal fecundity of philosophical ecstasy.