You wander in philosophy in order to turn homeward

Wolfe was wrong when he said that you never can go home again. He was wrong because philosophy leads you home after your wandering. Only once you get there, you realize that the idea of home has changed, changed blessedly, blessedly changed.


Reading philosophers from all times and climes, I am struck by the accuracy of this perception of the central inspiration behind philosophical speculation, by the constant recurrences–from the earliest Indian thinkers recorded to twentieth-century existentialists–of the theme of alienation. (5)

–David E. Cooper, World Philosophies: An Historical Introduction


In many of Plato’s earlier dialogues Socrates interrogates one or more Athenians as to the nature of some virtue–courage in the Laches, piety in the Euthyphro, justice in Republic I–in such a way as to convict the other of inconsistency. The casual modern reader might easily suppose at first that Plato is contrasting Socrates’ rigour with the carelessness of the ordinary Athenian; but as the pattern recurs again and again, another interpretation suggests itself, namely that Plato is pointing to a general state of incoherence in the use of evaluative language in Athenian culture. When Plato in the Republic produces his own coherent well-integrated account of the virtues, part of his strategy is to expel the Homeric inheritance from the city-state. (123)

–Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue


I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leapyear like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharons and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas 2 glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

–Molly, “Penelope,” final episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses


I do not say with Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living–that is unnecessarily harsh. However, when we guide our lives by our own pondered thoughts, it then is our life that we are living, not someone else’s. In this sense, the unexamined life is not lived as fully. (15)

–Robert Nozick, The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations

Further Reading

On philosophy as the setting out of stepping stones, see Andrew Taggart, “Public Philosophy and Our Spiritual Predicament,” Butterflies and Wheels.

On the sense of alienation and the longing for reunion, see Kathy Page, “The Perfect Day,” Carte Blanche.

On murmuring, alienation, and institutional failures

The philosopher David E. Cooper’s massive doorstop, World Religions: A Historical Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), does have a leitmotiv. It is the “problem of ‘alienation’ or ‘estrangement.'”

By these terms, they [Hegel and Marx] meant the sense which many human beings–all of them, perhaps, at times–have of being ‘strangers’, of not being ‘at home’, in the world. Reading philosophers from all times and climes, I am struck by the accuracy of this perception of the central inspiration behind philosophical speculation, by the constant recurrences–from the earliest Indian thinkers recorded to twentieth-century existentialists–of the theme of alienation. We can ask of our primitive ancestors, ‘Staring at the sun, the sky, were they aware of their own being, and if so, what did they think?’, but without much hope of an answer. We might, though with rather more confidence, guess that when people did become ‘aware of their own being’, they became conscious, at the same time, of its strangeness, of respects in which, for all their affinity with the animal and wider natural world, they were also set apart from it. For with self-awareness, there would also have come the emergent appreciation of being a creature that can reason and deliberate, make free choices, enjoy beauty and feel resentment, care about the past and the long-term future, string meaningful noises together, depict the world of nature in coloured powders or movements of the limbs, and perhaps receive intimations of a purpose lying beyond the world: an appreciation, in short, of the many ways in which a human being belongs, or seems to belong, to a unique order of life. (5)

You, dear reader, have been patient, having listened to me speak aloud for over a week about St. Benedict’s concerns with murmuring. The reason that an individual murmurs, we can now see, is that he is alienated or estranged from that institution to which she belongs and not in spirit alone.

For a time, the murmurer will perform like a zombie, going through the motions after having lost her faith. There are only 3 possible explanations for her zombie-like state: 1) she has been poorly educated; thus, the task of re-educating her with the view of overcoming her sense of alienation; 2) her superior has been mistreating her, so the superior must be dealt with in some reasonable fashion; or 3) “something is rotten in Denmark,” the result of which is that the institution must be reformed or pulled down.

Today I have my eye on the third case, the case in which something is, as a matter of fact, rotten in Denmark. More often than not, the murmurer becomes so alienated from the institution that he must leave it behind. On occasion, however, his murmuring rings loud enough to bring down the house.

The Failures of an Institution: A Synoptic View

In rough and ready terms, institutions can be alienating accordingly.

1. They can be either ‘too sticky’ or ‘too runny.’ Earlier this summer, I summarized Francis Fukuyama’s observations about the problem of “stickiness.” At that time, I wrote,

Institutions are conservative with respect to change. They are “sticky,” writes Fukuyama: i.e., risk-averse, change-resistant.

Changing external conditions can cause unadaptive institutions to decay or collapse. “[T]he fact that societies are so enormously conservative with regard to institutions means that when the original conditions leading to the creation or adoption of an institution change, the institution fails to adjust quickly to meet the new circumstances. The disjunction in rates of change between institutions and the external environment then accounts for political decay or deinstitutionalization.” (452)

Too-sticky institutions cannot meet head-on the challenges posed by changing social, economic, and material conditions. Conversatism with respect to change, which in the past had been an abiding virtue inasmuch as it had secured the institution’s vital link with the past, with its traditions and customs, can also be the cause of its downfall in the present. If the world is changing for the better and the institution can’t keep up with emerging life needs, then it is bound to fall apart.

On the other hand, an institution may be “too runny” in the sense that it lacks the “social glue” or “integrity” to maintain the institution as an institution. For any number of reasons (not least being insufficient funds), the entity may be here today, gone tomorrow. Perhaps we could dub the “runny” case the Tale of the Towheaded Start-up!

2. They can lack intrinsically worthwhile final ends.  Business terms such as  “mission statement” or “company vision” may not be suitable substitutes for teloi if only because they may neglect the question of whether the final end is of independent weight and importance. Poor final ends may be any number of things ranging from evil to trivial, from deceptive to deleterious. Given time and further reflection, the murmurer can account for his alienation. “I can’t see that what I’m doing makes any contribution to the common good. The reason is that this institution’s actions do not aim at satisfying basic human needs or higher desires. So far as I can tell, there is no way in which we can go on like this. I must leave, or the institution must change.”

3. They can fail to support good social practices. Good institutions are seed beds for good social practices. The institution of marriage is the soil in which particular marriages can grow and flourish. An institution such as marriage may have a fine and beautiful final end–call it love–and yet, in its current instantiation, it may neither permit nor encourage all the activities we associate with being a good couple, all the planting, observing, cultivating, and harvesting, all the practices that are necessary for the possibility of this marriage being a good marriage.

On first acquaintance, the conclusion may be puzzling: it is not the case that this marriage is rotten, but it is the case that the institution of marriage can lack the right spirit.

Summary of the Series

Day 1: “Why We Need Good Authority.” I describe the structure and quality of good authority and good obedience. As the title suggests, I also make the case that we can’t do without good authority if we want our lives to go well.

Day 2: On Murmuring as a Clue to the Problem of Authority.” I cue into murmuring as a primal urge of disaffection and alienation. I then lay out 3 possible explanations for someone’s murmuring.

Day 3: “On Murmuring, Education, and Love.” I examine the first case. A person’s murmuring stems from her improper education. What does good education look like?

Day 4: “On Murmuring, Bad Authority, and the Abdication of Responsibility.” I explore the second case. A person’s murmuring is a sign that the authority figure is not exercising legitimate authority.

Day 5: “On Murmuring, Alienation, and Institutional Failures.” I discuss the third case. A person’s murmuring implies that an institution isn’t working.