When you head into the country, it’s best to take your Thoreau along with you. Marilynne Robinson calls the West “lonesome” and means it to be a virtue. I want so much for life to be quiet and wind-spoken. Thinking sounds–comes and sounds–like this. Like wind speaking. We’ll be in the mountains for almost a week, secluded, hiking, and meditating, thinking of squash, of all that’s temporary, and of lonesome things too.
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.
- Removing the inessentials is not a form of punishment; it is an act of joy.
- “He who knows that he has enough–is rich” (Tao te Ching).
- “The highest goodness is like water” (Peter France, Hermits: The Insights of Solitude).
- My defects have been pride and prejudice. I grew up with an overvaluation of my own self-worth and with an undervaluation of the worth of others. Then I felt shame and a sense of injustice. These–admonitions–have shown me the way forward.
- “The monk’s fast dries up the stream of voluptuousness” (France, p. 35).
- “Abbas Macarins used to say that a bad word will make even a good person bad, but a good word will make even a bad person good” (Anecdote in France, p. 29).
- The corridors of the past are wider than we think. On Monday, I dwelt in the walking memory of my childhood home for all eternity.
- A tree shimmering in the wind is too much to take in. To do it justice, one must adopt a new way of seeing.
- It has been held, not least by me, that self-control is wanting in the present age. This is no doubt true, but it is also untrue. It is untrue because one thinks nothing of self-control when the environment in which self-control had mattered has changed. I thought nothing of checking my email or of fulfilling my worldly affairs when I existed in the physical/supra-physical space of the sanctuary. The lesson is that self-control is not a question when one’s environment is conducive to something higher.
- Practical affairs do come calling: sometimes in the guise of a UPS man ringing the doorbell with a sidelong glance.