Philosophical portraiture by Aleksandra Marcella Lauro

Aleksandra is working on a series on philosophical portraiture. The ultimate aim is to depict a life either as it is in the midst of transforming or after it has been transformed. In this series, she seeks in particular to portray the salient virtues of an excellent human life.

In the example below, we see Humility (on the viewer’s left) juxtaposed with Courage (on the right). Does Humility turn toward Courage? Does Courage bow down, becoming Humility? (Is there indeed, as Socrates held, a Unity of the Virtues?) And how does the hair flowing downward hold–without binding or entangling–one to the other?

Our lives are works in progress.

andrewpainting1
Aleksandra Marcella Lauro

Why humor is a saving grace and how life gets better with the really? are you so sure? question

I can’t possibly examine my life unless (1) I’m able to take a reflexive stance toward my desires, beliefs, and values and unless (2) I’m willing to test those desires, beliefs, and values. The first condition concerns my capacity to reorient myself toward my life while the second condition stakes the possibility of my thinking well on the indispensable virtue of courage. The paradox of the philosophical adventure has ever been that philosophy is available to any basically, decently rational person but is practiced, and has only ever been practiced, by a select few.

Condition 1: The Reason Why Humor is a Saving Grace. To see why humor is so important to one’s capacity for philosophical self-reflection, let me tell you a story. It’s around noon, and I’m running in Central Park. I’m headed north, not more than a mile into my run by this point, when I see a black guy listening to Janet Jackson, walking along with a boombox on his shoulder. This is patently absurd, I think, completely incongruous with the arcadian surroundings: the autumn leaves, the blighted trees, the gently sloping hills, the bubbling brooks. (This is a second joke, by the way, a spoof of the picturesque, a parody that  Austen was already making of the picturesque aesthetic tradition back in the early 19th C.) Or could it be that running in the park is, in the grand scheme of things, the more absurd thing to do?

Humor of this kind implies that we’re able to stand back from our lives and look at ourselves while we’re in the midst of a scene. It’s as though we were saying “action” and “cut” at the same time. The general test is whether you have the capacity to take any scene you’re in as potentially comparable to the one with the man holding the boombox or the guy laced to his running shoes. The most familiar scene can, at any moment, turn awry: here the too earnest man on the subway; there the girl (still…still!) wearing Ugs at the grocery store; over there the couple in Midtown both scrolling through their BlackBerries, both miffed at the traffic; and over there the guy with the 10 year old cashmere sweater who’s clucking over his herb plant and musing about the fan behind his armchair. God, what a fool that guy is. Oh, but that’s me!

Once we stand back from the flux of our lives, we show ourselves that we’re able to stand back from the brink. Although life is serious (the first lesson of growing older, the lesson that the young have yet to learn), our lives are not so serious that they will go on indefinitely (the second lesson: facing death). Standing back is tantamount to learning, paradoxically, how to live otherwise but also how to die well. How to live otherwise because in this self-reflexive moment we reckon that our lives, having gone this way, could still go on differently from here on out. We are indeed the klutzes who trip on the sidewalk (the actors in scene), but we are also the spectators who look on in amusement (the spectators just off scene) at the klutzes who trip about. But then also how to die well because we practice the art of letting go of this self and then this self and then this self, giving each a slightly comic turn as we say good-bye to each in turn. As we, now the spectators, say our goodbyes…to each in turn.

Sadly, most will remain gripped by the moment, held fast by the pull of the scene, unable to pause and say “cut” and try things over a different way. Unable to step out of character, they may very well go under. Or, Zinfandel in hand, become bored with life. About a week ago, I had to say good-bye to one conversation partner because, in his early 20s, he was simply too earnest, simply couldn’t fathom how to take a step, a half-step, a quarter step, out of his life. Rather, he was caught, pre-philosophically, in the middle amid the buzz and whir. To him, nothing could be amusing and nothing much done.

Frankly, there’s nothing that philosophy can do for someone who does not come to it with open arms, dancing shoes, and a very limber back.

Condition 2: Really? I Mean, Really? Are You Really Sure About That? A while back, I’d been working with one conversation partner for a couple of months before she’d told me a story about a contract that she didn’t fulfill. Why, I asked very gently, didn’t you complete the project. Because, she said, she had the intuition that something wasn’t right about it and that this was God’s way of testing her. To be clear, this woman was highly intelligent, had finished advanced degrees at Ivy League universities (a Ph.D. in fact), had a warm demeanor, was very likable, and could provide clear analyses of her acquaintances, family members, and the broader world. There was a good deal to be said in her favor. And yet, her religious worldview, which was pretty sensible on the whole, didn’t allow for some “basement level” philosophical considerations. I didn’t feel as though I could ask whether this was really a test and whether the scenario didn’t admit of better reasons, fuller explanations, and more accurate accounts of motivation and desire. Once we hit a certain point in our conversations, there was no room for the “Really, are you so sure about that?” question. Wisely, I sat quietly and, weeks later, said my good-byes.

Depending on the context, the “Really?” question can mean: (a) Are your beliefs true? (b) If they are true, are they justifiable? On what grounds? (c) How consistent are your most basic beliefs? How well do they ‘hang together’? (d) Are these desires primary, secondary, tertiary? (e) How about those values: do you really value (e.g.) worldly ambition above all else, because you know, don’t you, that you’re going to die? See this skull that’s–waha!–in my hand? (f) Above all, are you really really committed to, really all in this form of life? Are you in it, all in there, wholeheartedly?

Bear in mind that the “Really?” question doesn’t entail any particular conclusions. On its own, it doesn’t imply letting go, holding on, or leaving everything up to doubt. More humbly, it suggests a holding up to inspect for a time, a holding up long enough as if whatever were being held up were a breath held for a moment or two in mid-breath. We don’t know yet where the “Really?” question will go, but we do know what it signals. It tells us–tells the few courageous, blessed philosophical souls–that we’re not already there. And perhaps this makes us laugh because everyone else assumes as much. We laugh because we’re less unwise now than we were before. Thank God.

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.

I

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

II

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

III

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

IV

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.