“Are you not aware that there comes a midnight hour when everyone must unmask…” ~ Soren Kierkegaard
I get this fidgety and sweaty-palmed shame every time I have to go to the grocery store. The anxiety rises high-tide right around the time check-out becomes a dark necessity. And, as is my custom, I begin to take part in a very short, completely arbitrary and flippant gesture of analyzing the cashiers’ faces for what either looks or seems like the most kind and loving mug amongst the bunch or, alternately, the eyes that betray the dullest, most soporific and apathetic orientation to all of existence as possible for a human being still possessing a pulse. I want, in other words, to avoid at all reasonable costs the righteous gaze of the one who as soon as I say those fatal, ill-reputed words—“It’s EBT”—immediately places the contents of my order before the judgment seat of what passes as “okay” to purchase on food stamps. We somehow never seem to see fortune’s arbitrary hand at work, that some things simply fall apart, or work together, at random and meaningless intervals in our often inexplicable everyday existence. Rather, like good Americans, we are obsessed (and I include myself) to a nearly perverted degree with the notion of special providence in our lives.
Take, for example, Fox News personality Monica Crowley’s recent blather that “we know that entitlements are narcotics”— it being completely obvious to her that food stamps are on par with heroin. She is a marvelous example of an empty personality whose fortunes are much more arbitrary than necessarily deserved, seeing that there are thousands of women—many who are probably hopelessly hooked on Crowley’s “narcotics”—that could and would do her job with a much higher level of intellectual and ethical sophistication. However, despite the gyre of experience, most of us continue to believe, in a visceral and gut-level manner, precisely what the great Job’s palavers were so completely wrong about: that good things happen to good people and bad things to the bad. Deny this belief most of us will, but I’m afraid it is the native structure of our thought patterns. Such patterns can only be expunged through some kind of apocalyptic shattering of our inherited expectations of the good life.
There is always, however, an optimistic soul who tries to cheer me up with happy thoughts of future progress and success, by which they generally mean “financial progress”, another telltale sign of the sad American equation of existential worth and lucre. “You won’t always struggle,” they say. No, trust me, I will. It’s often not until I mention my six-figure school debt for a degree in philosophy that my pessimism rightfully earns the damn-well-maybe-you-really-are-screwed-forever-and-ever facial contortion response. (Well, at least financially speaking.) What can I say, I began school during a time when loan companies were handing out private student loans like trick-or-treat lollipops, and I had a wife and two young boys to take care of after a health scare that made it nearly impossible to return to my blue-collar manual labor job. So the doctor advised getting a degree, so I could give myself a fighting chance to make a living doing something that is not so taxing on this frail body of mine. And, being a naturally melancholic kid, I fell into the deep abyss of wonder and terror that the great philosophers and literary giants of history both whispered and shouted of. This is why, and how, I became a philosopher: a cosmic wink, simultaneously cruel and kind.
So a few years back, on a lonely and pewter clouded winter evening in Nottingham, England, I stumbled upon a brief interview with popular philosopher Alain de Botton which induced a nod and a mild chuckle. He had mentioned something about his hopeful expectations and wishes that his children wouldn’t follow his perilous footsteps by growing up to become philosophers; that is a denouement, he stressed, that would naturally and strongly imply that their poor selves had suffered some various kinds of traumatic events as children.
Of course this is not a rule of any kind, there being many philosophers out there who I’m quite sure experienced normal childhoods. But for the most part I want to agree with de Botton; that is, I truly believe that most philosophers are made by the repetitive shattering of stable and understandable structures of thought, the last of which usually involves the obliteration of the constant delusion that one’s self is potent enough to account for its own existence. And I take it that this highest and most existentially important of all broken edifices of thought is precisely what the German-Italian philosopher Franz Brentano meant when he said that a little splashing in the shallows of philosophy will lead one to atheism, while a deep sea immersion into philosophy will lead one to the divine.
The temperament of the philosopher is one that is struck by two magnificent and grave realizations. First, the sheer wonder and mystery that anything should exist at all. And second, the idea that all this splendor of existence, the pure pleasure of being, should ebb away into the eventide of oblivion and decay. The philosopher is anyone who experiences and reflects upon these twin wonders. (A definition, ironically, which many so-called professional philosophers fail to attain.)
It may even be that these are precisely the characteristics, so indigenous to the philosopher, that account for the slow emaciations of philosophy and theology departments across the landscape of the American university. I mean that the philosopher today (which is anyone who falls under the definition above) has little hope of surviving in a culture whose entire economy thrives so heavily upon purloining from its citizens both the ability to contemplate the mystery of existence and the recognition that no one gets out of this world alive. Death and existence are strangely absent from our conscious horizons. And of course the raison d’être of the modern economy is to turn existence into a commodity, to distract and induce dissatisfaction with our lives by deluding us into thinking we can purchase our existence. To the contrary, existence can only be received as pure gift: we are ultimately impotent to produce or manufacture existence by our own will and desire.
Sadly, though, it is often only when we come to the end of ourselves, like Dante or the Prodigal Son, in the dark wood of bewilderment and loss, when we are sick and weak and can’t pay the rent and buy food, that we begin to embark on the journey through the difficulties of existence. And it is here, at the foot of a seemingly insurmountable Mount Delectable, where we must embark on a descent into hell’s despair before we can ascend into a future and a hope. But it is here, too, where we can move no further without a guide, without a wise Virgil, or, and infinitely better: a beloved Beatrice. The solitary search must find its way and wisdom in a communal light of life and thought, it must read and converse in the liminal space between the living and the dead. We need help, guidance.
So this is why, and how, I became a philosopher: my great, aggrandizing empires of self have succumbed to a continuous shattering, only to be resurrected within a much more wonderfully infinite epektasis (the eternal ascent of the soul, as St. Gregory of Nyssa put it) of desire towards the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. And perhaps it is only when we, as society and individuals, are willing again to resurrect the question of being—to wrest it from its recent incarceration—and come to ourselves in a dark wood, that we may begin again to open ourselves to being’s revelations; that is, open to a guide, which is also to say, open to the past, present, and future rather than dwelling merely within the fleeting scintillations of, say, shopping, or watching TV. Can we reopen the doors and windows of what St. Augustine called the vita vitae, the Life of life? Here, and perhaps only here, we may discover that to be a philosopher—a lover of wisdom—is ultimately synonymous with, however dark one’s nights may be, the desire to be surprised by Joy. A desire that leads to the discovery that being’s light is manifested both within, and as, Joy. Hence the novelist Marilynne Robinson ends her essay, Facing Reality, with one of the more brilliant and succinct summations of Dante’s thought ever written: “And Dante, who knew the world about suffering, had a place in hell for people who were grave when they might have rejoiced.”