Letting others be: A fictitious admonition

No words must needs be addressed to him if what he is doing does not accord with what I think he would be better off doing. Let him be. That there may be other ways of doing something, some incontrovertibly or demonstrably better than this one he prefers or seems to anyway: what of it, man? Am I to concern myself each passing day with the details of this man’s affairs by sticking in a finger–a pointer, a probe, a dull knife? Must my tongue be fastened to his business or to hers? Come now: let it pass.

Or stay. Turn. Turn around. What urges my this way when I say what I do or, if I don’t, seethe in it all or if I wait until the pot falls and then tighten my heart in frisson, in torqued satisfaction? Shall I have a deep look–at myself, at this ugliness?–for ugliness it is. Looking, looking closely, if I dare, I see: self-righteousness…

With this, I cannot let myself be. No more nonsense now. All this time lost exhorting, lost chastening, spent correcting others! No letting be for an instant! All this stupid incorrigibility! The arrogance, the futile ignorant arrogance! What a roundabout!

Shocked? Horrified? Revolted–with myself? A good entry point from which to investigate myself: only, careful, unincriminatingly.

Prospective, hypothetical inquiry

Most of the work in my philosophy practice is focused on making sense of what has happened to someone where this “making sense of what has happened” involves fitting this event into a conceptual framework. Elsewhere, I have called this ‘philosophical holism’–a part is only intelligible in relation to a whole–and the insight into how this part fits into this whole seems to reveal to both inquirers how the past can be put into order with the present, how the diachronic can be wedded to the synchronic. In other contexts, I have spoken of ‘lived logics’ and have urged that their primary purpose is to show us how something will likely play out given the requirements and constraints already set into place. A lived logic, on this understanding, is a demonstration of how a way of life, given these conditions, will have to unravel, is fated to do so. The first kind of inquiry is retrospective and speculative while the second kind is prospective and actualizable.

To me it came as a surprise, then, to find myself ‘brought to the question’ two nights ago where this ‘bringing my life into question’ was of a different mode entirely: the genre was hypothetical and prospective. That is, if X were to be true and X’s being true brought about–some steps much further into the argument–some possible future state in which we might live, then what would be the conclusion that we would reach? In this case, my inquirer and I felt fear, incredible horror at the place we could not see coming during the carrying out of the inquiry but which we came to, like an intimation of death, as an unforeseen result of our inquiring. She was visibly shaking; I was speechless and lightheaded.

We need to examine the relevance of this hypothetical, prospective mode of inquiry for leading a philosophical life. My thesis–in what follows, only posited, hence unproven–will be that the goal of hypothetical, prospective philosophical inquiry is to guide us, by means of the dramatic performance of the conversation itself, to the brink of death. By this means, we have a dramatized experience of death (my death which is not hers, hers which is not mine, but both individual deaths grasped as a feeling of loss of everything that matters most), we recognize the pain we feel in relation to the other’s death, we note the following morning that life has become urgent and new and flush. Provided we are vigilant, the experience lingers on, in the weeks and months ahead, as a reminder of what matters most to us.

The French philosopher Alain Badiou has spoken of truth as living “in fidelity with” an event. Similarly, the living results of a prospective, hypothetical inquiry are that we want to be otherwise than we could end up being not primarily so that this possible future state be avoided but in the hope that we will remain faithful to this insight, become attentive to and aware of our daily peccadillos, be open to the smallest apertures for the possibility of world-sundering, be vigilant through and through, and remain joyful in this life from dawn onward.

40-somethings, the Last Man, and a tragic sense

I found Simon Kuper’s “Fortysomethings: A Midterm Report” (Financial Times, October 12, 2012) especially illuminating. He writes that 40-somethings are both producers and products of sheer busyness: they are mid-career, married, with young children and mortgage payments. He observes that they do not have time to think about their lives. Consequently, “Nowhere in my peer group have I witnessed a textbook midlife crisis.” The tone of the piece seemed to me most telling: a wry sense of humor, a quiet form of modesty, a comic sensibility.

Call it an espousal of the Last Man argument. After the Death of God, Nietzsche worries that the Last Man will have no reason to live–no higher reason, that is–save to maintain his comforts and to half-observe the tedium of things. Unable or unwilling to stake himself to anything higher, he merely persists in his own existence. He has forgotten what it means to ‘give an account of oneself'(logos) and thereby forgotten what could make life into a work of art.

In my philosophy practice, I’ve noticed something different, however. Those in their early 40s seem more willing and able than those in their 20s or 60s to put their life into question: the whole of it, I mean. The Last Man is but one notable comic response; another, born of a tragic sense, is an awakening to philosophical life. Hear Thoreau: “To be awake is to be alive.”

Jane Austen as moral educator

A copy of the revised Canterbury Classics edition of Jane Austen’s novels, in which my Introduction appears, arrived in the mailbox yesterday afternoon. I was surprised to see that one of the last words in the Introduction was “lifework.”

When you read something you’ve written months or years before, you can’t quite see how the words were ever yours. By now, they’ve been lost to you, but in their return they come as a gift from strange but gentle hands.

Here’s a short excerpt from the final section entitled “Austen’s Legacy”:

Of those novelists whose works have become modern classics, perhaps no one apart from Charles Dickens seems to have attracted or delighted general readers more than Austen. This is likely because her novels contribute something of lasting value to our self-understanding. But what exactly might that be? The answer lies with Austen’s optimism about the capacity of human beings to adapt to their surroundings, reflect on the general shape of their lives, and refashion themselves according to high-minded ethical ideals. Under Austen’s tutelage, we discover that moral progress is possible, self-examination indispensable, good judgment desirable, and love intrinsically valuable. (xv)