Lacking awe is disaster, having awe is reverence

This series of reflections begins with the post entitled ‘The World does not Need Saving’ (September 17ff).


Either one learns to perceive the world as being good and beautiful, or one takes the world to be ugly and unjust. The first is the contemplative path, one that requires a lifetime of philosophizing in order to coalesce into the many things. The second is the modern path whose starting point is that how things are is not how they ought to be, whose rallying cry is ‘changemaking’ and ‘social change,’ and whose terminus is disaster. The contemplative view is reverent; the muddled view is complaining; the modern view is disastrously heroic.

Re-read the opening stanzas from Daodejing 72:

When men lack a sense of awe, there will be disaster.

Do not intrude in their homes.
Do not harass them at work.
If you do not interfere, they will not weary of you.

Having a sense of awe means that the world as such is sacred. Thus, it cannot be changed, and it cannot be saved. When one lacks a sense of awe, one intrudes, breaking into and breaking apart the lives of others. As an intruding neighbor, one is a busybody. As an intruding development organization, one supplies locals with computers. As a utilitarian bureaucrat, one starts ‘tallying up’ happiness.

Return to the sense of awe, and you will only approach the other when he has invited you over. You will not intrude or harass or intervene but welcome and inquire. This means: letting go of that and perceiving this. This means: honoring all of existence.

Nagel on Aristotle on identifying with the ‘highest part of ourselves’

What is the ergon of human beings, asks Thomas Nagel in his essay on Aristotle’s eudaimonia, for the answer to the question of how to live hangs on this. The ergon (function) of the hammer is to pound in nails; a poor hammer may be too heavy to wield, too flimsy, too poor at pound in nails, etc.; a good hammer may  even be called perfect if it pounds in nails most excellently. But what of the ergon of human beings?

As Nagel reads Aristotle, the function of humans cannot be what we share in common with plants or animals (or angels). Locomotion, for instance, we share in common with animals, but analyzing human beings in terms of locomotion would not help us to understand in what eudaimonia (human flourishing) might consist. Survival and reproduction are other erga, but these too we share with animals. In neither case do we have the distinct ergon without which it remains vague what will make human living matter. (To see the force of this point, imagine providing food and shelter for your children. You can do so and, as a parent, it would be the right thing to do, but yet what would be the point of raising children well?)

Continue reading “Nagel on Aristotle on identifying with the ‘highest part of ourselves’”

‘Their philosophy is for others; I need one for myself’

In Interview 139, the soft-spoken gentlemen at Philosophy Bites finally got around to asking professional philosophers what it is they do with their time. What, they queried, is philosophy? Some said that philosophy is the analysis of our concepts. Others said that philosophy is the examination of the presuppositions underlying what we normally take for granted. One man cited the late Wilfred Sellars who offered, rather nicely, that philosophy is concerned with “how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” So there you have it.

The answers I liked most came during moments of laughter. One old fellow said that philosophy was the pursuit of wisdom but, laughing, said that that wasn’t the kind of thing we do much anymore. His honesty really got me, as did his way of putting things.

You see, for all their differences, what is clear (though, to be sure, not to the uninitiated) is that all of the above answers share a theoretical orientation toward philosophy. On a theoretical conception, philosophy involves thinking hard about very hard questions, it is said; or it is about thinking clearly, it is averred–systematically, it is seconded. But only a few mentioned, and then only with a smile, that philosophy could be oriented toward the Good, turning its face to the project of self-cultivation.

So while the answers are generally good and decent, they already presuppose a conception of philosophy that I cannot see myself in, that we cannot see ourselves in. And I want, as my conversation partners also want, to see myself in philosophical life. With this in mind, I want to try my hand at a conception of philosophy that is oriented toward the Good. I will venture that

Philosophy is the search for the most excellent ways of being in the world.

If “the most excellent ways of being in the world” can be glossed, in a word, as radiance, then it follows that

Philosophy is the search for radiance.

For now, I leave things here because a definition cannot do justice to a life that is devoted to walking along the path of inquiry.


Below, I offer a short excerpt from Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker, a puzzling book that is two parts rant, one part apologia, and one part reverie. This particular clipping is cut from the opening pages of the Third Walk (also translated, in a more haughty-taughty fashion, as the Third Promenade). Rousseau is a self-conflicted figure. I am not sure that he ever really found himself at home in the world, not for a long enough spell. I am convinced, however, that he found a few moments of great contentment while living on a small island in the middle of the Lac de Bienne, a lake that is not far from Bern, Switzerland. I point you to the magical Fifth Walk.


It is from this time that I can date my complete renunciation of the world and that great fondness for solitude that has never left me since. The work that I was undertaking could only be accomplished in absolute isolation; it called for the kind of long and undisturbed meditations that the tumult of society does not allow. That forced me for a time to adopt a different way of life, which I was subsequently so glad to have done that, having since then interrupted it only against my will and for short periods of time, I returned to it most readily and limited myself to it quite easily as soon as I could, and when men later reduced me to living alone, I found that by isolating me in order to make me miserable, they had done more for my happiness than I had been able to do myself.

I set about the work I had undertaken with a zeal in proportion to both the importance of the task and the need I felt for it. I was living at the time among modern philosophers who resembled very little the ancient philosophers. Instead of removing my doubts and resolving my uncertainties, they had shaken all the certainties that I thought I had about those things which I considered most important to know: since, as ardent missionaries for atheism and very imperious dogmatists, they could not abide without getting angry with anyone daring to think differently from them on any point whatsoever. I had often defended myself quite feebly because I hated debate and was far from adept at it; but I never adopted their wretched doctrine, and this resistance to such intolerant men, who moreover had their own aims in mind, was not the least of the causes that stoked up their animosity toward me.

They had not persuaded me but they had made me anxious. Their arguments had shaken me but without ever convincing me; I could not find a good response to them, but I felt there must be one. I considered myself guilty less of error than of incompetence, and my heart answered them better than my reason.

I finally said to myself: Shall I allow myself to be forever tossed about by the specious arguments of the eloquent whose opinions, which they preach and which they are so keen for others to accept, I am not even sure are their own? Their passions, which determine their opinions and their interest in making people believe this or that, make it impossible to discover what they themselves believe. Can one look for good faith in the leaders of parties? Their philosophy is for others; I need one for myself. Let us look for it with all my strength while there is still time, so that I may have a fixed rule of conduct for the rest of my days. Here I am in my mature years, at the absolute height of my understanding. I am already nearing decline. If I wait any longer, I shall not have all my strength at my disposal in my later deliberations; my intellectual faculties will have lessened their activity, and I shall do less well than what today I can do as well as I ever shall: let us seize this propitious moment; it is the time of my external and material reform, so let it also be the time of my intellectual and moral reform. Let us fix once and for all my opinions and my principles, and let us be for the rest of my life what careful thought will have shown me I should be.