Spiritual Exercise – 4. Measure

Measured speech is neither pithy (witticism) nor voluminous (garrulity). Measured speech is the expression of, or accompaniment to, the virtue of temperance. Let us transform ourselves.

Ask yourself,

  • Do I tend to blurt things out? Why is that? Why can’t I seem to hold my tongue?
  • I think I have to ‘say my piece,’ but do I have to? Does my voice ‘have to be heard’? Always or only in certain circumstances?
  • Am I repeating myself? Have I said any of these things today or recently: ‘Again,’ ‘To reiterate,’ ‘Not to repeat myself, but…’, ‘Just to be clear–‘, ‘Let me remind you….’ If so, why? Am I concerned that the other won’t understand me? Do I assume that no one can understand me? 
  • Am I trying to sound overly clever? Have I said too little or in the wrong way? Is the other baffled or injured, and have I said what I said in this fashion with a clear purpose? Why? Do I think it licit to be cruel?
  • What stands in the way of my speaking, as it were, in haikus? Remember Rochefoucald: ‘Eloquence is saying the right thing and only the right thing.’ The qualifier only is highly significant. A good sentence needn’t be long or unduly complicated. The best get to the point.
  • What of decorum? It used to help us see when something could be said but would nevertheless be inappropriate to say, e.g., in these circumstances.
  • What keeps me from spending more of my time in silence? Could I change the ‘default setting’ from speaking to being quiet? Could I get rid of the chatter or, if not, then minimize it? Could speech be as rare and true as Nature’s voice, as beautiful as desert flowers?

The hardness and the softness of philosophical practice

“Whitman’s central image, the leaves of grass, a form of life that perishes but rises again and again out of its own decay” (231).

–Lewis Hyde, The Gift

“Anything I have I bestow.”

–Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

There is a hardness as well as a softness to the philosophical life. Like leaves of grass, your former life has perished; like leaves of grass, a new life is emerging. Your pain is the pain of transformation; your endurance is the endurance of ages; your patience that of millenia; your life the life of lives.

In the academy, there is none of this: no hardness but also no softness. Nobody says “I don’t know” in connection with life, and nothing is really up for grabs. Uncertainty, if there is any, is all of an intellectualized sort. The scholar is “interested in” such and such, does “research on” so and so,  is a “specialist in” the thus and so. His life is neat and tidy, or it is a mess. No matter.

For you and me, my friend, the blood runs freely in our hearts, onto our tongues, over our lips, into our touch. This is the hardness. The hardness:

a willingness to challenge your life-beliefs; a granting of the falling off of life-beliefs; the perception of a way of life as it is falling off; a resistance to the siren-return; a persistence in the mood of unknowing; a true longing for a life lived otherwise.

The softness is a giving in splendor. The softness:

an opening onto a clearing; the love of fresh thises; the bounteous welcoming of the other; the trying-out of life-ideas; the holding-fast to the loveliness of transience; the beatific vision of a life in harmony.

Putting life in order properly means: getting the proper measure of hardness and softness.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Letter Writing as Spiritual Exercise,” Philosophical Practice, forthcoming November 2011.

Andrew Taggart, “Practicing Philosophy,” The Philosophers’ Magazine (TPM), forthcoming November 2011.