Looking up at the main nave of Notre-Dame Cathedral, listening to a Gregorian mass during Sunday morning, I felt more spirits around me than most of the Christians there. But those spirits were not God’s angels coming dow to greet me. If there is a God, I have no doubt he lingers there from time to time, sitting by the people just so He can look up. But it is the spirit of man you wiIl find from top to bottom, the spirit of emperors and conquerors and stone masons and simple men like me all there feeling they have reached the center of the world. Because that is not a place to revere God; it is a place to revere the grandest achievement of man. Every stone and window and arch commands you to do so, to try to reach the heavens with your flabbergasted gaze. I don’t think neither men nor gods could avoid that. When you look up, the only word that can fill your mind is the same that fills my mind now when I remember that day: awe. It is awe not for the Gods, for it was not Him who built her — it it awe for man, and before man I knelt that day. Before man, I wish I could kneel today.
It was a day like any other, but I was abnormally happy. I was around ten years old at the time, and my mom had agreed to buy me a set of ping-pong racquets and ball. I wasn’t so sure who I’d play with, because I’ve never had many friends and the ones I had didn’t have a table for playing it. But I was indeed happy.
I didn’t write the words below — I just typed them. I don’t think I’d have the ability to transpose my feelings into words so strong, visceral, and honest, even if I had lived through what this man has.
Man lives amidst shadows. He creates opinions about things that he is not even sure if they exist. And even these things are not entirely real. The scientist can transcend the flawed world of the senses — of the things as they appear to us — and elaborate hypotheses about reality. But only the philosopher comes to see the light and, from it, he can see things as they really are. This is the Platonic theory about the world, a fascinating blend of theory of knowledge and metaphysics.
If there is a world full of objects that are independent of my own body or mind, and if I can only know them through the effects they have on my body’s senses, in turn causing mental states of awareness in my brain where these objects are represented, how can I ever know that these representations correspond to the objects or, in other words, that my perceptions correspond to reality?
I have the potency to act. I have the potency to write. Every one has. Only the perfect act has not potency anymore. An act is relative to its proper potency. The perfect act relative to the potency of writing is the Iliad, Moby Dick, Dune. Potency is imperfection. Most acts are also imperfect, only less. The prototypical imperfect act of writing is what I am doing right now.
Since I shared with you yesterday a very impulsive and rancorous comment on a history of philosophy book, let me counter that with a much lighter analysis, but one as impulsive as the latter. This is actually a great opportunity for me to postpone again my posts on Contemporary Philosophy — my test is already tomorrow, so there is in fact no more pressing need for these posts. My sole aim was to kill two birds with one stone by simultaneously studying and adding to my blog. I am not prepared for Idealism yet — I lack both the academic knowledge and the tolerance right now.
Today I am racing with my (very delayed) study for a test the day after tomorrow on Contemporary Philosophy, hence my previous post and, hopefully, my next few. So I was looking for a single book from which I could extract, in my typical “borderline plagiaristic way”, material enough for quick summary posts and a decent understanding. I was lucky to mention that to a colleague who had just bought a book that seemed to be exactly what I needed: “German Philosophy 1760-1860: The Legacy of Idealism“, by Terry Pinkard. I gave him a ride home, borrowed the book (a real physical one!) and came home, not eager to read it, I must admit, but enjoying the fact that I had a mission that could now be accomplished. Like I said, I am late, so I am doing this sort of speed reading, highlighting just the minimum and not even taking notes when I simply had to stop and write this post. The reason is: I saw evil. I saw evil on page 44.
Historical modernity and modern philosophy are not in sync. The former begins at that great confluence of inventions, conquests, and discoveries that characterize the second half of the 15th century, most importantly, Gutenberg’s press, the fall of Constantinople, and the discovery of America; the latter begins only in the 17th century with Bacon, Hobbes and Descartes. The Renaissance humanism of the 15th and 16th centuries, as well as the Protestant Reformation can be regarded only as a transitional period leading to modern philosophy proper in the 17th and 18th centuries. After Kant dies (1804), we can say that reason has failed, and that the foundations of the irrationality so pervasive today begin. It is that period of growing irrationality from Kant to after the Great Wars that we will call here contemporary philosophy; the period after that, you can give it the name you want.
I never got a chance to tell you this, but I do it now because I think you should listen. I’ve thought about it because of my mother, who is dying in a hospital. I’ve thought about it because of my daughter, who is starting her life. And I write to you because of your wife and your son — because of you. I write to you because of your family.