The Old Story, A Fake Empire

IT is an old story, a theme too worn for the turning of sentences, and yet too living a moral not to find every day a new point and to break a fresh heart, that our lives are wasted in the pursuit of the impalpable, the search for the impossible and the unmeaning. Neither today nor yesterday, but throughout the whole life of the race, the complaint has gone forth that all is vanity; that the ends for which we live and we die are “mere ideas,” illusions begotten on the brain by the wish of the heart — poor phrases that stir the blood, until experience or reflection for a little, and death for all time, bring with it disenchantment and quiet. Duty for duty’s sake, life for an end beyond sense, honor, and beauty, and love for the invisible — all these are first felt, and then seen to be dream and shadow and unreal vision. And our cry and our desire is for something that will satisfy us, something that we know and do not only think, something that is real and solid, that we can lay hold of and be sure of and that will not change in our hands.

Bradley, Ethical Studies

 

Carlyle, from Heroes and Hero-Worship

It is well said, in every sense, that a man’s religion is the chief fact with regard to him. A man’s, or a nation of men’s. By religion I do not mean here the church-creed which he professes, the articles of faith which he will sign and, in words or otherwise, assert; not this wholly, in many cases not this at all. We see men of all kinds of professed creeds attain to almost all degrees of worth or worthlessness under each or any of them. This is not what I call religion, this profession and assertion; which is often only a profession and assertion from the outworks of the man, from the mere argumentative region of him, if even so deep as that. But the thing a man does practically believe (and this is often enough without asserting it even to himself, much less to others); the thing a man does practically lay to heart, and know for certain, concerning his vital relations to this mysterious Universe, and his duty and destiny there, that is in all cases the primary thing for him, and creatively determines all the rest. That is his religion; or, it may be, his mere scepticism and no-religion: the manner it is in which he feels himself to be spiritually related to the Unseen World or No-World; and I say, if you tell me what that is, you tell me to a very great extent what the man is, what the kind of things he will do is. Of a man or of a nation we inquire, therefore, first of all, What religion they had? Was it Heathenism,—plurality of gods, mere sensuous representation of this Mystery of Life, and for chief recognized element therein Physical Force? Was it Christianism; faith in an Invisible, not as real only, but as the only reality; Time, through every meanest moment of it, resting on Eternity; Pagan empire of Force displaced by a nobler supremacy, that of Holiness? Was it Scepticism, uncertainty and inquiry whether there was an Unseen World, any Mystery of Life except a mad one;—doubt as to all this, or perhaps unbelief and flat denial? Answering of this question is giving us the soul of the history of the man or nation. The thoughts they had were the parents of the actions they did; their feelings were parents of their thoughts: it was the unseen and spiritual in them that determined the outward and actual;—their religion, as I say, was the great fact about them.

Emerson on Montaigne, a New Start

Last year, around this time, I was writing here about Emerson’s essay on Montaigne.  I got distracted from that and moved on to other things.  But I am going to get back to it now.  Look for more posts in the coming days.  In the meantime, you might want to look at the initial post I wrote last year.

Skepticism: Vain Thinking, 1

A fresh-ish start on a difficult topic.  Bear with me.

I take vanity to be the central concept of Montaigne’s writing:  it is the concept that joins his Christianity to his skepticism, in fact it is the concept that makes his skepticism Christian.  I suppose this claim might be a stumbling block for many, and for a variety of reasons.  The one I want to address now is this:  “You take the Essays (particularly the Third Book) as deeply colored by Ecclesiastes.  For you, the line, “Per omnia vanitas” is the running heading of the Essays.  But Ecclesiastes is, remember, a description of life “under the sun”–uncompromising, cold, objective, human–a description of a world without God.  So how can Montaigne’s Ecclesiastes-saturated essays be a form of Christian, again:  Christian, skepticism?”  But that is not how I understand Ecclesiastes.  Ecclesiastes I understand as itself revelation:  What is shows us is human life as revealed by God.  What it shows us is not something we can lift ourselves out of by coming to faith in God, as if faith in God undid the vanity of human life.  It doesn’t. God is Mystery; faith is Mystery; and the relationship of both to the vanity of human life is Mystery. That does not mean that we know nothing about God, faith or the relationship of human life to each or both, but it does mean that we cannot make simple, formulaic comments about it.  (It is not safe to say, for instance, that the view of human life in Ecclesiastes is one that simply requires the supplementation of grace in order for it to undo its vanity.  There’s something right about that, sure; but it is not a matter of simple supplementation.)  Human life is vanity.  God and faith in God do not change that straightforwardly, although God and faith in God allow for hope and patience in the vanity of human life.

Montaigne’s skepticism is his way of reckoning with the vanity of human life–a vanity still present in human life even when it is lived in Christian categories, a vanity in fact most fully disclosed in such living.  This does not mean that human life is devoid of value or of values, but it does mean that those values are, in an important but difficult sense, contradictory.  Happiness is vanity; but we should gather such happiness as we can.  Work is vain; but we need to work.  Neither happiness nor work is fully satisfying, but neither is without value.  Their value is enigmatic, contradictory.  As such, the role of each in human life is not open to easy survey–and to think either is so open is to fail to reckon with the view of human life God reveals, to fail to remember life’s existential deficiency. (Note that the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, the Church-Man, has had this revealed to him not in ecstatic vision but in the midst of his own life’s striving:  “I marked…”, “I found…” “I learned…”.  It is important that the book is written first-personally. But what is marked, found and learned is not something that the Church-Man takes himself to have come to know independently of God’s revelation of it to him. What is true under the sun is not anyway available to be known under the sun.)

For Montaigne, as for the Church-Man, knowledge is vain.  We should seek it, cannot, in one sense, help but seek it:  “There is no desire more natural than the desire for knowledge.”  But even when we have it, each of us must ask:  “What do I know?…I am an investigator without knowledge.”  –No matter what we do, we are all unprofitable servants.  –We know what we know, but knowing it does not eliminate our emptiness or neediness, as we expect it to do.  Nothing we can know can change what we are, make us new and different and better creatures.  More often than not, what we know turns out to be an encumbrance, a burden, a curse; knowing what we know makes us worse. (The Serpent’s lesson, taught in the Garden.)  At best, it tends to puff us up.  Puffiness is Montaigne’s aversion.

More soon.

A Philosophy of Considered Experience?

Can a philosophy be grounded on the considered experience of its author?  –So grounded, we could understand it as open to analysis and to disagreement, but not as straightforwardly vulnerable to argument based on general principle.  I ask because it strikes me that many of the philosophies I care most about can be understood as grounded in this way, as grounded in their author’s considered experience.  Montaigne’s, of course; but Cavell’s too, of course.  Many philosophers who turn in the direction of ’empiricism’, ‘experience’–can I think be best understood as appealing to his or her own considered experience.  They are not best understood as appealing to experience (full stop), are not worried about (or much worried about) theorizing the rational or a-rational bearing of experience (full stop) on belief or knowledge.  They are neither rationalists nor empiricists, although stretches of their philosophical terms, constructive or critical, sound empiricistic.

A give-away for the sort of philosophy with which I am concerned is a moment at which the philosopher talks of experience as something to which we can be loyal, something to which we can rally, something that can obligate us, something that can be educated.  Another give-away is talk about experience as accumulating, as having weight.

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