Philosophy and the renewal of hope.

This is an essay I wrote on hope, included in a book I am working on.


Of all man’s gods, Time is the only one that is truly silent. The hand of time idly counts the number of fallen leaves with the same indifference that it counts the numbers of the dead. It is not the hand of time that touches everything with decay, that introduces the singular tragic element of change into people and things. It is the human heart that accomplishes that: present in the note of music that could have risen a little further, the smile that faded a moment too soon, or the embrace that could have been a bit warmer, we find this vanity.

Love devours itself for, having merely secured for us a threshold upon which a new order of desires might evolve, it gradually replaces the dissatisfaction and that sorrow which it had rendered virtual with a new sorrow, a sorrow more sublime, more heavenly, more replete. Love ultimately lives only so that it may cease to live. It is fitting that we mortals should only feel love between the beatings of our heart, as one of Castilho’s poems declares. That mortal heart stirs with the contemplation of beauty, and rests in the contemplation of its disappointment. So close are these two moments that they touch upon one another, staining each other to the extent that our desire for any particular thing may be said to be our regret over its dissolution, and that the only true desire which might possess us in this life is the desire for things to have lasted-- for life to have been otherwise. Thus, in every word we utter, in every teaching that warms our spirit, in all of our joys and sorrows, long have we been prepared for that renunciation of things in which all music offends us save for what the dawn’s gentle hand plays upon the harp of still waters; notre cœur eut goûté, dans une paix profonde, to speak with Rotrou, in which all beauty strikes us as quite false save for what the heart can drink in profound silence. Life is only the first note in that unknown song which, long before it has been finished, death will silence. Our hopes, dreams, and our art resolve just as little life.

As Amiel said, “Each bud flowers but once and each flower has but its minute of perfect beauty; so, in the garden of the soul each feeling has, as it were, its flowering instant, its one and only moment of expansive grace and radiant kingship.” The endless abbreviation and cutting-short of everything in the visible world of nature extends even into the life of the very soul. Of life we may gather only some nascent and incomplete visions, which with some idea we must lend our support to; that idea in whose image we feel we have discovered the hidden sympathy of one state of the soul to another.

Though it is true that hope perpetuates our pain, hope is less painful than life. All of our suffering owes itself to a single fact. We are afraid to hope. Let us speak with that epigram in Scaevolae Sammarthani Poemata: ne pareant animi sensa, tacera potes, our life is divided between a few stirrings of the heart and silence. Life eludes us. We will never be able to capture the cadence of the sea in any song. Yet we carry within us an infinite which with all of our cunning we can never accomplish in burying under the finite, as Carlyle said, even if it is our greatest desire to do so; a hunger which with all the beauty of illusion we cannot satiate and resolve in silence; a hope which will not balk at the world in reticent contemplation, but clamors in its own suffering to taste existence. We aim to forget it and to abandon it if possible, for it wearies us. An old poet, Sascerides, said that love makes us immortal. For what is love, but the courage to hope? And what is hope, but the furious hunger for being, which the poet Saint-Amant formulated with his words, “I welcome blood in both war and love,” a hunger encircled and drawn into its own heart, into that within us which we have not yet succeeded in relinquishing to the world. In hope it is our own humanity that serves the measure of man, not what was expected of us, nor what was within the power of our mere flesh to grasp. We have looked to God, to nature, to history; we have sought to measure man by every criteria except for human nature. We do not perish because we are the sons of time, but because we are the sons of a man.

Pathos without ethos, a sense for reality without that sense for possibility, a despair without love, has no bearing upon the contemplative soul. The first law of the contemplative life we may take from Salazar, that despair is the mother of hope, and the second from Stendhal, a small amount of hope is all that is needed to give birth to love. This love which must necessarily accompany philosophy also ennobles it, transforming its lofty indifference into that effective desire which Maxmius spoke of when he said that a man adopts the nature of what he beholds in his imaginings, et sic phantasiis per omnia similies fiunt.

Beneath virtue there may certainly be philosophy, beneath joy there may be hope, beneath love there may be illusion, beneath suffering there may be pride, and sorrow, the proclamation of the vanity of one life, is answered only by the vanity of the world. There is nothing beneath it, it alone is in accord with itself. Sorrow has therefor no object, and partakes of the nature of infinity, to speak with the poet; pleasure is always bound to its object, and partakes of the nature of the flesh, of time, and of finitude. For this reason Tristan L’ Hermite declared that all the terror of hell is rooted in the soul. Yet, despair and sorrow can only serve as presentiments of the dawn of a personality.

Who a person is, what desires, what passions, and what knowledge a person possesses, in the final case depends upon the scope of his vision. It depends on how many of these qualities he can unite within the circle of his comprehension, it depends upon the breadth of the image which he is capable of drawing from them, for anything not held within the confines of this image will certainly be lost, and everything not informed by its unity destroyed. It is eros, that love which ennobles philosophy, which searches into the depths of mortal passion, which chastens the springs of joy and suffering, and which raises them into the higher phrases of freedom and tyranny, hope and despair, faith and truth; it is this eros which unites the mere fragments of life upon which a personality is based, and the personality not touched by eros is not a personality at all.

Things ungraspable, when they torment man, torment him only because he hopelessly insists that these things, rather they are objects of artistic contemplation or of his immortal longing, ever resplendent in their implacable form, adhere to the variations and excesses of his soul. For man is rarely aware that it is precisely through the recognition of these forms alone that he becomes conscious of this mutability of the human heart which, in the reality of our common, habitual, and unthinking experience, like the gradual decay of mountains, leaves no impression upon us.

Paradysi species, as Theophilus says, the semblance of paradise, which we find in the beauties of mortal life, can offer more than a mere glance heavenward, toward the unreachable, for all that is contemplated by man in the eye of beauty becomes the object of some paradise, is possessed by it, and examples it upon this world. To be carried from moment to moment, giving each the measure of its proper worth; to unite the movements of our heart, as varied and disparate as they are, in their purest intensity; to feel the bitterness and sweetness of a moment as it passes; to secure a joy for precisely that desire which fought to attain it, denying it to the addled glut of our desires, and to dwell constantly within this “image of paradise”-- this is what the contemplation of beauty teaches, what genuine hope approves, and to be resolved to the endless variations, excesses, and all the confluences of human longing is only to have missed this teaching. Time wears upon and impoverishes all things save conscience, this it edifies. Only when the belief in the eternal is united with the suffering of the transitory does art become genuine and contemplation fruitful.

The Greeks knew very well of the “immortal origin of the yearning for immortality,” as one philosopher spoke of it. They made of this yearning the very beginning of philosophy. They knew very well of man’s longing for the infinite and the eternal, and that sorrow which so thoroughly imbues this life; a sorrow that, in the final case, may be reckoned the greater constituent of his very soul. For when we draw upon our recollections of life, how very unreal do the moments we felt ourselves closest to the truth become, how quickly are our “eternal confidences” in them wholly annulled; moments precious to us in their fruition for, as Sophocles said, “there is no happiness without wisdom.” Who could have imagined that wisdom fades from our life more readily than happiness, that it is after all an even more ephemeral shade. The title of that poem of Gongora, Vana Rosa, may have served for the banner of wisdom-- it might as well have served as the banner for all of life. In the light of recollection the truth of these moments cannot be discerned, wisdom abandons us, and we taste the bitterness of that sorrow which draws our very soul aloft most distinctly. The most vivid moments, too, so deeply endued with passion, do perversely offer themselves to us in our recollection, and seduce and cheat us. One should never reflect too deeply upon himself, for it is both a vain and cheerless endeavor, one that neither secures wisdom for us or gives us a second taste of the beauty of our illusions. We become like the man in Leonardi Aretini’s Comedia Polyxena, when he compares his love to a wide sea in which, lost, he dies of thirst, unable to draw any life from the sweetness of his memories of young happiness, lui minima multe no amo sicit amat, or pehaps we are rather disposed to sing over our heart that verse from Adrianus’s Galatea,

Tempore forma perit, paucisque ea carpitur annis;
Dum licet, Idalii pellite tela Dei.

To beauty time lays waste, that is assured;
though I shan’t even permit her fruit to bear;
as long as it is permitted me to drive out amor’s dart, upon Aphrodite’s very temple

As Calcidius said, the soul of man is no less tempting an abyss than the starry vault and for this reason, as he contemplates upon himself, his gaze is also drawn toward that sky which serves for him as a confidant, which enshrouds all the world with some vesture of mortal suffering. Everything this world touches with its possession withers and dies. If we could touch the stars, they would be nothing; less beautiful than a common stone, and just as numerous. But the stars, however beautiful they may be, along with everything that we cannot touch, only suggest to us the possibilities of our own soul, in which are contained such worlds as are more distinct from one another than those stars which revolve in infinite space and from which certain individuals impart to us, in a work of art or an idea, some ray of beauty which, as it glints in upon our life, compels us to wonder from what strange world it must have descended along its journey to that region of our soul where formerly we saw only darkness and endless wastes; that life which, so immense, so vast, so endless, we will never be able to exhaust in the martyring servitude of time; that life, with its “endless waves of laughter,” to use Aeschylus’s epithet for the ocean. Perhaps Mexia’s phrase, la Virtud excede á la hermosura, that virtue surpasses beauty, is the perfect wisdom of life. The enrichment of man, not pleasure, is the object of any study of beauty, the sole ambition of any genuine art and contemplation. It is the creative will to embody the content of our mutable, ceaseless experience in forms, to render those fugitive states of the soul which constitute it of higher significance than our individual lives, that accomplishes what Egidio da Viterbo had called for- homines per sacra immutari fas est, non sacra per homines, which is to say that these forms, along with all the riches of art and philosophy, work to change man.

Based on these poetic reflections, it is possible to offer a brief and yet rich description of the nature of philosophy, a catechism of the fundamental doctrine belonging to it. One of the most beautiful concepts in the philosophy of Spinoza-- and it may encapsulate the meaning of philosophy itself, is amore intellectus, intellectual love. This doctrine conceives of knowledge as itself an affect, philosophy itself a pathos, truth itself a passion. One other philosopher, Schelling, shared this view, or at least expressed it directly, in his wonderful quote: “Only he who has tasted freedom can feel the desire to make over everything in its image, to spread it throughout the whole universe. Anyone who does not come by philosophy on this path merely imitates others with no feeling for why they do as they do.”

But how could this amore intellectus, in the necessarily abstract paths it must follow toward its object, have any conceivable application to life? It is not so difficult to imagine. The mystery of form is the mystery of life-- that is the pathos of philosophy. When we realize in a quote from Homer or a phrase in Chopin some epitome of our own life’s suffering, it ceases to afflict us, or in the figures of Raphael and a definition of Plato’s some image of our own joy, the anxiety of our longing is forever stilled. Form is itself a consolation, form is itself a satisfaction.

Aside from it’s direct application to life, philosophy serves to enrich the human being. Philosophy, imbued with Eros and transformed into a genuine intellectual love, opens up a distance between the philosopher and the object of this love, truth. It brings man to face what Amiel called “the obscure” when he wrote-

"The obscure only exists that it may cease to exist. In it lies the opportunity of all victory and all progress. Whether it call itself fatality, death, night, or matter, it is the pedestal of life, of light, of liberty and the spirit. For it represents resistance – that is to say, the fulcrum of all activity, the occasion for its development and its triumph. "

This marks the fundamental distinction between Plato and Spinoza’s conception of knowledge. Eros is an allegorical representation of the philosopher’s longing to step across the gulf between what he knows and what he does not know, between the world and heaven, appearance and truth, Amiel’s “obscurity” and light. That is why sophrosune is a virtue in the mind of Plato, it is a fruit of contemplation, and not immediately attained. Ultimately, in Plato, knowledge grants sophrosune, and the affect of knowledge, it’s pathos, and Eros itself, are only a presentiment of genuine knowledge- immature and perishable fruits. Genuine knowledge lies only in the eye of sophrosune, the knowledge of what one knows and what one does not know; that one knows nothing, to use the apothegm of Socrates. In Spinoza however knowledge becomes genuine when it stimulates amore– the fact that knowledge inspires amore is what makes it genuine. What does not exist is only what we have desired insufficiently as one writer said, perhaps even what we have loved insufficiently; the nonexistent, to use Amiel’s language once more, is the occasion for our development and our triumph.

I believe the technical term is ‘waffle’.

Go read Bertrand Russel.

Maybe it is just the vicodin that has entered my bloodstream, but I feel inclined to give you a little response, Remster.

I searched your posts, as you did mine. I see you have respect for the academic community, your posts are universally found in meaningless threads on regurgitated tripe that has no bearing upon anything of real value, and they also happen to be littered with words ending in “ism.” Talking about philosophical topics doesn’t make you a philosopher, it doesn’t even lend you any vantage upon what it means to be a philosopher.

I insulted your taste in philosophy, I insulted analytic philosophy. But let me give you some advice, don’t make anything personal out of it. Don’t start stalking me from thread to thread to tell me about it. Because the truth is I could give you a half an hour to launch your most vituperative rant against me and I would probably take more offense in the drop or two of your saliva that happened to make it to the end of my shoes than I would take offense in anything you could conceivably have to say to me with your lukewarm wit, emasculated vernacular, and crap taste in books.

Forget what they told you boys and girls, there really are two kinds of people in the world-- those that piss me off, and those that don’t.

There are also those who get threads locked and board warnings for posting personal attacks, and those who don’t. Any more from either protagonist will see them in the former.

Where is the renewal of HOPE.

Erm, no, I just had a read of the ten or so most recent threads. Isn’t that what people do when they visit a discussion forum?

Some of them, I’ll grant you. But it’s comparable to going to the gym twice a week (boring) so you’re fit to play football at the weekend (not boring). Well, sort of.

Weirdo.

Oops, my bad.