Duncan Richter wrote a lovely reflection on my talk at VMI on Wednesday. Thanks to him for listening so carefully and following up so gracefully–and all with a cold!
Reading Annie Dillard on a picnic table. Tiny ants trudge around in myopic busyness. One ambitious climber clambers up and onto the open pages of the book. I fail to observe him and so crush him with my hand. He dies slowly over minutes, seconds, aeons. I watch him die: it is the only gift I can give him. His filament legs stop moving and he goes still. Goes. Gone. A universe of death packed into his inarticulate articulated body. Goes. Gone. I look up at the patchy blue sky. It seems to ripple above the water of the lake. It envies the lake’s shores, the lake’s shapeliness. A form of meaning. The horizon is an obstruction, not a limit. Gone. I begin again to read, now careful where I put my hands.
As I suppose most philosophers do, I get fairly common requests from folks who are fascinated by philosophy asking for reading lists and advice. I thought I would share my latest response to such a request.
For such a man, art is an act of faith:
Prayer the study of it, as Blake says,
And praise the practice; nor does he divide
Making from teaching, or from
theory. The three are one. . . .
Some days, between trying to get it right, trying too hard to make it come out right, and not being able to wait for it to strike me in the right way, interpretation wearies me, even sickens me, and I feel as if all real interpretation is just seeing and saying, and what I occupy myself with daily is instead nothing but saying I see, seeing if I can say, reading without seeing, seeing more than I can say, saying what should just be seen, reading instead of saying, saying instead of being. —Little knots of thinking and willing and wishing.
From Collingwood’s consistently delightful The New Leviathan (2.54):
Man’s world is infested by Sphinxes, demonic beings of mixed and monstrous nature which ask him riddles and eat him if he cannot answer them, compelling him to play a game of wits where the stake is his life and his only weapon is his tongue.
To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s worlds, “having no hope and without God in the world”–all this is a vision to dizzy and appall; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution.
What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact?
I used to spend pleasant hours with my teacher, Lewis White Beck, talking about our favorite writers. He introduced me to Cardinal Newman, and to the glories of Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Who has ever written more perfectly controlled English prose? Here, a piece of prose to range alongside Samuel Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes. Consider the opening ten lines or so of that great poem.
Let Observation with extensive View,
Survey Mankind from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious Toil, each eager Strife,
And watch the busy scenes of crouded Life;
Then say how Hope and Fear, Desire and Hate,
O’erspread with Snares the clouded Maze of Fate,
Where Wav’ring Man, betray’d by vent’rous Pride,
To tread the dreary Paths without a Guide;
As treach’rous Phantoms in the Mist delude,
Shuns fancied Ills, or chases airy Good.