In Aleksandra’s most recently completed portrait, the subject is in the midst of a philosophical conversation. In the figure on the left, we see a man listening intently. He is either ready to hear another speak or, more likely, is in the middle of hearing someone make a claim. He is listening–but in what manner? Intently, unwaveringly, undistractedly, single-mindedly. ‘Intently’ is meant to capture something of what it is like for him to have these words be ‘his entire world.’
In the figure on the right (whose head is bowed slightly), we observe him taking this claim in. The claim does not tarry in the air; he does not let it simply pass (or give it a simple pass). It is scrutinized–but, again, how? Closely, with ultimate carefulness. The claim he takes care of, even if the person is not spared this intense examination. As we look on, we note that what is yet unclear is what the statement means or whether it will require modifications, assent, or ultimate rejection. This moment of suspense–a claim suspended, a response suspended–the dramatic element of philosophizing is in evidence.
The artist, I suspect, was also looking intently and considering matters closely as she worked on this portrait. (Well, I know this: I could see her in the other room working day after day.) Hence, the artist exhibits certain virtues while she works, and the work is to be evocative of a life lived according to the beautiful virtues.
One who sets foot on the philosophical path may become bewildered when he begins to consider how it is possible not to be arrogant yet also how to ascend beyond the bounds of the ordinary. I have recently come to a better understanding of how this is possible. More: of how this is necessary.
1. From Charles Taylor in A Secular Age and Peter Sloterdijk in You Must Change Your Life, I accept the thesis that one of the chief features of modernity is the creation of horizontality. Without theism, there is no idea (or at least there is deep suspicion) of the vertical or transcendent (not, in any case, not after 1945 when various forms of quasi-transcendent options begin to appear). In other respects too, egalitarianism is espoused, if not always adopted. And then there is the ‘affirmation of ordinary life,’ which insists that the good life is now identical with the spheres of production (work) and reproduction (family). In very different ways and coming from quite different traditions, Taylor and Sloterdijk both want to ask, ‘What is higher? From what source does it spring?’
One common excess marks the character of most good philosophical friends and conversation partners. That excess is arrogance.
The path of philosophical life is not desired by the ignoramus. And it cannot be disclosed to the self-loathing man. Nor to the complacent man. Only the arrogant man (1) relishes what is higher, (2) wants it for himself, and (3) believes himself to be worthy of possessing it.
Hence, the path of philosophical life is desired by the arrogant man for he believes it to be the best form of life and he wants it for himself. And yet, such a path cannot be disclosed to him until he is humbled. Humbling occurs not least when he recognizes that he has been a fool. For many years, a fool. Many years spent in vain. Philosophy brings him to confront his foolishness and to feel shame for having lived this way.
This turning is the beginning. Desiring would not have been possible (or, in any case, likely) without the one so desiring having been arrogant in the three respects above. But the path remains hidden so long as he remains so. Herein lies the perplexity, the paradox.
To set foot on this path is to have one’s arrogance humbled. Philosophy humbles time and again with gentle admonition. Only then is the shining path revealed to the aspirant and this for the first time. Now it is that the aspirant no longer wants to possess wisdom nor does he believe himself worthy of having it. (Wisdom cannot be possessed.) However, his estimation of its height has only increased exponentially, and he is stirred and stirred by the mere intimations of its resplendent beauty. And all this, as Benedict says of humility, is only the beginning…
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?
Throughout, we included photos that, when clicked on, open up and fill the entire screen, thus becoming artworks unto themselves.
We wanted, in short, for the one coming up the site to pause, slow down, and take notice. We hope you’ll find the experience of strolling through the website both illuminating and edifying. As usual, if you’d like to get in touch with me, you can do so through the Contact Form, which is located on the main site.