The dog is our superior

“A British poet began a verse to a dog: The curate says you have no soul—. I know that he has none. That is good; but it is spiteful. Let us admit the curate. For the dog would. A dog does not care a wag of his tail whether a man is curate or editor of a newspaper. Therein the dog is our superior.”

John Albert Macy, The Critical Game

From Macy’s essay on Maurice Maeterlinck, the latter a writer I know little of beyond his being held in high esteem by Miriam Henderson, Dorothy Richardson’s protagonist in Pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage continues to enchant to the point that I cannot imagine reading another work of fiction with quite the same degree of pleasure and absorption. I’m taking my time with Pilgrimage, feeling no inclination to finish, but also allowing myself to drift into sampling Maeterlinck—whose essays I like very much—Spinoza, and Emerson, writers Richardson alludes to directly or indirectly in Pilgrimage.

Reading Nietzsche Through Walter Kaufmann

Since I was seventeen I’ve read Nietzsche. I can no longer recall what I read first, probably the yellowing Thus Spake Zarathustra, annotated in two different pens, that still sits on my bookshelf. Nietzsche understands teenagers. He speaks to their complexity and anguish, and they approve of his desire to shatter the tenets of their culture. Nietzsche faced down the nihilism of his age with style, humour and strength. Though Nietzsche’s thinking only partially penetrated my younger self, he left me fortified with the necessity of going deeply into myself to fully experience life.

Over the years I read all of Nietzsche’s published books, though undoubtedly in less reliable translations and editions than are now starting to become available. Nietzsche’s aphoristic style lends itself to dipping into a few lines. Though this achieves little, it is a thought-provoking compass for how one has changed during all the years of reading the same lines. My reading of Nietzsche is changed with all the later reading and thinking I’ve done.

At the moment I’m reading Nietzsche through Walter Kaufmann, only a hundred pages or so in but enjoying his thoughts and observations. Kaufmann untangles Nietzsche’s relations with his anti-Semitic sister Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche and the intriguing Lou Andreas-Salomé to clarify how both women set out to distort how Nietzsche’s thoughts were later interpreted. Kaufmann then proceeds to show with some elegance how the contradictions in Nietzsche’s arguments are merely superficial. He argues that Socrates is Nietzsche’s ideal, that he is not a ‘system thinker [unlike Kant or Spinoza] but a problem thinker.’

The result is less a solution of the initial problem than a realisation of its limitations: typically the problem is not solved but ‘outgrown’.

Though first published in 1950, Kaufmann’s interpretations are an inspiration for more contemporary readings of Nietzsche, one of which I also wish to read is Alexander Nehamas’ NIETZSCHE Life as Literature (1985). If you know of other Nietzsche secondary literature (not biography) worth reading please let me know.

One Too Many Eyes

Coming across Clément Rosset’s work is akin to discovering a close new friend in adulthood; Rosset is an ally to add to that small list of thinkers, philosophers, writers (call them what you will) that do not feel the need to contest, mask or avoid reality, but from time to time stare at it for moments at a time with curiosity and terror.

On the strength of Joyful Cruelty: Toward a Philosophy of the Real, Rosset’s work takes it place alongside that of Beckett, Epicurus, Adorno, Lucretius, Nietzsche, Jane Bennett, Emil Cioran, Schopenhauer, Montaigne, perhaps Spinoza and Wittgenstein. I’ve been back and forth through this book, scribbling notes, underlining passages and dipping into large passages of all the other writers just listed, chasing down philosophical references, some chimerical, some actual. Here is an extended passage to give you a flavour of the work:

The acceptance of the real presupposes, then, either pure unconsciousness-like Epicurus’ pig, who is the only one at ease on board as the storm rages and fills the passengers and crew with anguish-or a consciousness which would be capable both of knowing the worst and of not being mortally affected by this knowledge of the worst. It must be noted that this last faculty-to know without receiving mortal damage-is situated absolutely out of reach of human faculties, unless of course some extraordinary assistance appears, what Pascal calls grace and I call for my part joy. Indeed, knowledge constitutes for humankind a fatality and a sort of curse recognised in Genesis (“You shall not eat from the tree of knowledge”). Since it is both inevitable (impossible to ignore completely what one knows) and inadmissible (equally impossible to admit it), it condemns humanity. Man is the being who has ventured into the recognition of a truth that he is incapable of facing (like a foolhardy general who throws himself into the assault without being assured of the state of the forces at play and the possibilities of retreat) and which is a contradictory and tragic destiny-tragic in the sense that Vladimir Jankélévitch understands it (“the alliance of the necessary and the impossible”). What is most crucial and most notable in what is called the human condition seems to me to reside precisely in this: to be equipped with a knowledge-contrary to what is true of animals and inanimate objects-but simultaneously to be stripped of sufficient psychological resources to confront one’s own wisdom, to be furnished with a surplus of knowledge or “one too many eyes,” as André Green would say, which indiscriminately is our privilege and our ruin, in short, to know but to be completely incapable. Thus, man, is the sole creature to be conscious of his own death (and of the death promised for all things), but also the only one to reject without appeal the idea of death. He knows that he is living but knows not how he lives; he knows he must die but knows not how he will die. In other words, man is the being capable of knowing what he is incapable of knowing, of being able in principle to do what he is incapable of doing in reality, of finding himself confronted precisely with that which he is incapable of confronting. Equally incapable of knowing and of ignoring, he demonstrates contradictory capacities which prevent the formulation of all plausible definitions of him, as Pascal insists in the Pensées. One could say that a divine and universal programmer (unless it is just a chance combination of things, as Epicurus suggests) committed in this instance a basic error, sending confidential information to a terminal which was not in a state to receive it, to master it, and to integrate it into its own program, revealing to humanity a truth that we are incapable of admitting but also, unhappily, very capable of understanding. This is why Lucretius’ poem, which sets out to cure human anguish by revealing the truth, can only have as its principal result to increase that very anguish. To administer the truth to one who suffers precisely from the truth is worthless. In the same manner, the forced perception of reality to which Lucretius invites us is without benefit for someone who fears above all reality taken in itself, in its unadorned and cruel state. The cure is worse than the disease here. Exceeding the powers of the afflicted person, it can only treat a cadaver which has already succumbed to the test of a real which was beyond its capacities-or occasionally comfort someone who is well and in no need of comfort. In a passage from his Zibaldone,Leopardi analyses this inadequacy and necessary contradiction which opposes the exercise of life to the knowledge of life: “One can hardly better expose the horrible mystery of things and universal existence … than by declaring insufficient and even false not only the extension, the influence, and the force, but the fundamental principles of our reason themselves. The principle for example-without which every proposition, every discourse, every argument, and the capacity to be able to establish and conceive the truth collapses-the principle, as I was saying, according to which a thing cannot simultaneously both be and not be seems absolutely false when one considers the palpable contradictions which exist in nature. To exist in fact and to be unable in any way to be happy, by virtue of an innate impotence inseparable from existence, or rather, to be and to be unable nor to be unhappy, are two truths as proven and as certain with respect to man and o every living being as any truth can be according to our principles and our experience. Now, a being united with unhappiness, and united with it necessarily and by its essence, is something which is in direct contradiction with itself, with perfection and its very goal which is happiness alone, a things which ravages itself, which it its own enemy. Thus the being of living beings is in a natural, essential, and necessary contradiction with itself.” Cioran briefly summarises the same thought in an aphorism from The Temptation to Exist: “To exist is to protest against the truth.”

Be Cautious


Portrait in oil of the dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza by the painter Franz Wulfhagen (1624–1670) from Bremen, Germany. Created in 1664, probably commissioned by the scholar Johann Eberhard Schweling, the painting today is in private hands in France.

Portrait in oil of the dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza by the painter Franz Wulfhagen (1624–1670) from Bremen, Germany. Created in 1664, probably commissioned by the scholar Johann Eberhard Schweling, the painting today is in private hands in France.

Spinoza’s mother tongue was Spanish; he was a master of Hebrew and had an effective command of Portuguese and Dutch – perhaps also of French. However, none of those languages contained the wealth of scientific and philosophical argument that was contained in Latin, which language therefore became, for Spinoza, both the primary vehicle of his thought, and the symbol of his intellectual quest. In choosing the universal language of our culture, Spinoza wrote the last indisputable Latin masterpiece, and one in which the refined conceptions of medieval philosophy are finally turned against themselves and destroyed entirely. He chose a single word from that language for his device: caute — `be cautious’ – inscribed beneath a rose, the symbol of secrecy. For having chosen to write in a language that was so widely intelligible, he was compelled to hide what he had written.

From Roger Scruton’s Spinoza: A Very Short Introduction

Come as you are .. to Spinoza (and Deleuze)

Deleuze is difficult, but I read his work like opaque poetry. There are good maps available for those who want to engage in what Deleuze called the “nonphilosophical understanding of philosophy.” I don’t read to understand, but understanding comes in the same rushes of lucidity that is common with enigmatic or oracular poetry.

Spinoza can also be difficult, and Deleuze on Spinoza no less so. My edition of Spinoza: Practical Philosophy is translated by Robert Hurley, who offers up this wonderful introduction which I think encapsulates what I am trying to say in this post:

[..] one doesn’t have to follow up every proposition, make every connection-the intuitive or affective reading may be more practical anyway. What if one accepted the invitation-come as you are-and read with a different attitude, which might be more like the way one attends to poetry? Then difficulty would not prevent the flashes of understanding that we anticipate in the poets that we love, difficult thought they may be. The truly extraordinary thing about Deleuze is precisely the quality of love that his philosophy expresses; it is active in everything he has written.

This quality of love is also precisely what compels me about Spinoza’s philosophy.

To Follow Spinoza

Of Spinoza, Hegel professed boldly, “You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all” and “It is therefore worthy of note that thought must begin by placing itself at the standpoint of Spinozism; to be a follower of Spinoza is the essential commencement  of all Philosophy.”

The meticulous Baruch Spinoza has always fascinated me, as much for his modest life as a lens grinder as for his unswerving commitment to philosophy as a transformation of one’s way of living. Like the Stoics, Spinoza believed that philosophy had a curative role by teaching people how to attain happiness, though he differed markedly from the Stoics in rejecting that reason could overcome emotion.

Spinoza’s influence has strayed widely beyond the realms of philosophy and political theory. Borges was deeply influenced by Spinoza’s work. He also wrote the following poem (translated by Richard Howard, César Rennert):

The Jew’s hands, translucent in the dusk,
polish the lenses time and again.
The dying afternoon is fear, is
cold, and all afternoons are the same.
The hands and the hyacinth-blue air
that whitens at the Ghetto edges
do not quite exist for this silent
man who conjures up a clear labyrinth—
undisturbed by fame, that reflection
of dreams in the dream of another
mirror, nor by maidens’ timid love.
Free of metaphor and myth, he grinds
a stubborn crystal: the infinite
map of the One who is all His stars.

At the end of the Ethics, Spinoza wrote

If the way which I have pointed out as leading to this result seems exceedingly hard, it may nevertheless be discovered. It must indeed be hard, since it is so seldom found. How would it be possible, if salvation were easy to find, and could without great labour be found, that it should be neglected by almost everybody? But all excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.


Ethical Theory

In my last brief post I wrote of the thrill of discovering (thanks to David) the work of Pierre Hadot and his philosophical leitmotif, drawn from antiquity, that philosophy is the choice of a form of life and not purely academic discourse. We are intuitively drawn to thinkers that confirm our way of thinking, and being non-academic I have always read philosophy in this way, hence the philosophers that fill the most shelf space in my library: Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Spinoza, Kant, Derrida, Cixous and more recently Jane Bennett, Bourdieu and Pierre Hadot, intellectuals that intentionally spoke to readers beyond the academy.

I wrote of seeking a life with less anxiety, more contentment. Philip responded (and I hope he doesn’t mind me extracting his invaluable remarks from the comments box):

I sometimes wonder, though, whether explicitly searching out a life “with less anxiety, more contentment” – i.e., seeking to improve one’s own lot – isn’t just another reinforcement of the striving self: i.e., if I perform my spiritual exercises with enough discipline, or if I become ascetic enough, I will at last achieve bliss. Seeking liberation from the ego through the workings of the ego.

This is the crux, the Buddhist stance, as far as I understand it, that denies the concept of self. My difficulty with this position is how to develop it as a form of living, in the direction of what the Epicureans called ataraxy (contentment with existence).

I’ve followed the path of ontological nihilism, reality doesn’t exist etc., and reverted to a more existential stance that eschews teleology, but reinforced by what is essentially a modernised Epicureanism, similar to what Jane Bennett terms enchanted materialism. To quote my new old friend Lucretius, “Nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use.”

The ancient Greek philosophers, of all schools, developed a set of spiritual practices and meditations, a core of ethical principles that were vigorously discussed and expounded, making it more likely that they would be enacted as ethical practises. Foucault wrote of a discipline for installing an ethical code on the body, of an ideal of self to which the ethical person aspires. It seems to me that denying the concept of self results in a frustrating paradox more likely to result in acedia (apathy, but with shades of depression) than ataraxy.

When time permits I’ll write further about the content of the ethical ideal that gets me out of bed. Do you have a set of ethical ideals to which you subscribe? And, if so, what motivates those ideals?

We Are Eternal

On this day of Rapture:

Jacques-André Boiffard – Bouche

We sense and experience that we are eternal. For the mind no less senses those things which it conceives in understanding than those which it has in the memory. For the eyes of the mind by which it sees things and observes them as proofs. So although we do not remember that we existed before the body, we sense nevertheless that our mind in so far as it involves the essence of the body under a species of eternity is eternal and its existence cannot be defined by time or explained by duration.

Spinoza, Ethics, Part V, proposition XXIII