Plenitude: The Romantic feeling of joy

Against the postmodern view that the aim of art is to desecrate what is higher, to transgress sacred boundaries, or to disrupt the status quo, I posit that contemplative art glorifies while active art makes what is more plentiful. The tradition espousing the fullness of being is, of course, Romanticism.

For all his bluster against Romanticism as a form of decadence, Nietzsche certainly picked up one motif less (or so I suspect) from the scene of Greek orgy and more from his Romantic predecessors. In one of his final works, Twilight of the Idols, he writes effulgently of that ‘overflowing feeling of life,’ that ‘affirmation of life,’ the ‘eternal joy of becoming’ which he associates with Dionysus. In a Dionysian view of life as art,

Continue reading “Plenitude: The Romantic feeling of joy”

Rejecting art as transgression

It was about five years ago, in 2009, that Roger Scruton’s essay, ‘Beauty and Desecration,’ appeared in City Journal. What is remarkable about the essay is that we had nearly forgotten that art was, until quite recently, not at all concerned with the transgressive and provocative. In fact, it is only after 1930, according to Scruton, that the view that the purpose of art is to desecrate won out and is now taken to be common sense in the art world.

Continue reading “Rejecting art as transgression”

Plotinus on sculpting the self

In Enneads I 6, 9, Plotinus writes,

Go back inside yourself and look: if you do not yet see yourself as beautiful [i.e., as participating in the Idea of Beauty], then do as the sculptor does with a statue he wants to make beautiful; he chisels away one part, and levels off another, makes one spot smooth and another clear, until he shows forth a beautiful face on the statue. Like him, remove what is superfluous, straighten what is crooked, clean up what is dark and make it bright, and never stop sculpting your own statue, until the godlike splendor of virtue shines forth to you…. If you have become this, and seen it, and become pure and alone with yourself, with nothing now preventing you from becoming one in this way, and have nothing extraneous mixed with your self… if you see that this is what you have become, then you have become a vision.

Thus, on this analogy, removing the inessential reveals to one the ‘godlike splendor of virtue.’ The technique (by which I mean: spiritual exercise) does not mean modeling oneself upon another; it is not about accepting oneself as one is; it is not about willing oneself to be other than one’s nature would allow; it is not mimicry. None of these but the slow, attentive, and gentle ‘chiseling away’ of one’s vices, one’s clumsinesses, and one’s uglinesses with the result that one can, only now, participate in the Idea of Beauty. Look to the coursenesses. Let them all go. Then will you not espy a vision close-up or from afar since now it is that ‘you have become a vision.’ You are mystical art.

Lunga School, ‘an ambitious offspring of the festival’

My friend Jonatan Spejlborg Jensen, a graduate of Kaos Pilots in Denmark, and his colleague Björt Sigfinnsdóttir have launched Lunga School. Lunga School, whose first incarnation will be 4-month-long semester of art and self-cultivation workshops starting this spring, is ‘the first of its type in Iceland.’ To learn more about the school, you can read the brief write-up in The Reykjavik Grapevine or you can go directly to their website,

Inquiry illuminated

Excerpt from The Art of Inquiry, Chapter 1.


1. Inquiry Illuminated

What is it — Distinguishing Inquiry from Other ‘Genres’ (Methods, Theories) — Why it matters

1.1. Preliminary Definition

An inquiry is an unrehearsed genre whose principal aims are, first, to reveal to us what we don’t know but thought we did and, second, to bring us a greater sense of clarity than we could have possibly imagined.

Most discourses are rehearsed: professors read out lectures, politicians give speeches, businesspeople present PowerPoint presentations, know-it-alls quote what they have heard, doctors cite important studies, journalists conduct interviews with prescripted questions, experts work off theoretical knowledge, and so on. Most personal conversations are scripted, with each party asking questions with which the other is familiar and the other, in turn, offering replies that are instantly intelligible.

Doubtless, these discourses serve many purposes: conveying information, airing opinions, expressing emotions, making exclamations, discussing opportunities, reassuring participants, evoking common images, confirming common sense. However, to a large degree, these discourses also cordon us off from our vulnerabilities, making it impossible for us to learn something new about ourselves and our fellows. What is staked in telling me that you’re from a small town in the US? And what do I learn, in any substantive way, about myself when I read about fluctuating exchange rates?
Perhaps the goal of many discourses is to assure us in our received understandings and to reassure us that we know what we are doing.

One end of a philosophical inquiry, by contrast, is to draw our life into question. There is no sense in which this drawing into question can take place unless we are able to lose our footing, come to stutter, get muddled by what we mean, flail about in confusion–unless, in short, we come to know that we do not know what we thought we did, that we do not grasp what we had for so long taken for granted. Considered, sincere utterances (note, here, the first condition–an utterance being considered–as well as the second–the supreme virtue of sincerity) such as “I don’t know,” “I’m not sure,” and “I couldn’t say” illustrate how far we have come from terra firma. How rare to be in newfound territory, befuddled and turned about!

Inquiry does not leave us forever in a state of ignorance; it also lets us arrive at greater mutual understanding. This clarity could be likened to finally saying what is on the tip of our tongues, with the caveat that this something is novel. There is something we want to say but do not know yet; there is somewhere we want to head but this somewhere remains elusive; there is something missing we want to find but the discovery has, as of yet, remain hidden. The conclusion to an inquiry, accordingly, is like naming, a new destination, a novel discovery. “Yes,” we say, “This is it!”