For some reason, today, I found my mind continuously returning to the epigraph of Deleuze’s charming little book Spinoza: A Practical Philosophy. There Deleuze draws a passage from Malamud’s text, The Fixer.
“Let me ask you what brought you to Spinoza? Is it that he was a Jew?”
“No, your honor. I didn’t know who or what he was when I first came across the book– they don’t exactly love hi9m in the synagogue, if you’ve read the story of his life. I found it in a junkyard in a nearby town, paid a kopek and left cursing myself for wasting money hard to come by. Later I read through a few pages and kept on going as though there were a whirlwind at my back. As I say, I didn’t understand every word but when you’re dealing with such ideas you feel as though you were taking a witch’es ride. After that I wasn’t the same man…”
“Would you mind explaining what you think Spinoza’s work means? IN other words if it’s a philosophy what does it state?”
“That’s not so easy to say… The book means different things according to the subject of the chapters, though it’s all united underneath. But what I think it means is that he was out to make a free man of himself– as much as one can according to his philosophy, if you understand my meaning –by thinking things through and connecting everything up, if you’ll go along with that, your honor.”
“That isn’t a bad approach, through the man rather than the work. But…”
I’m feeling rather despondant today, a bit dim. Perhaps I’m suffering from post-traumatic interview syndrome, or maybe it’s everything going on with the book. Occasionally I feel as if I go through these periods where I become all but autistic; where I lose my will to speak with anyone or think at all. Yet nonetheless I found that I couldn’t shake this passage from my mind, even though it’s been so long since I read the book. Similarly, when I returned home from the office I found myself delving back into Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, a book that I’ve kept beside my bed for many years and that I read when I wake up in the middle of the night.
Perhaps this passage and the desire to read Lucretius emerges from the fact that we’re beginning Descartes’ Meditations in my intro classes, that shining point of light emerging from darkness. Somewhere Lacan remarks that the style makes the man, and I’m always struck by the manner in which the Meditations read like a personal journal or stream of consciousness, like a novel. Just as the style of Plato’s works themselves make a substantial philosophical point– that questions of philosophy are questions of intersubjectivity –it seems to me that Descartes’ writing style is a declaration of his freedom, his independence, that he will no longer submit himself to the authority of the church fathers and Aristotle, where arguments are won through citation, and where kings and priests rule on the basis of unconditional authority. Once again, one can be hostile to Descartes’ Meditations seeing him responsible for all manner of things, but in the method of radical doubt itself, there’s something of tremendous value as a break from citation, authority, priests.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Plato’s question is always “who is the good shepard, who is fit to rule?” and his answer is always the same– those who have wisdom. In this connection he staunchly opposes, like Lucretius, ungrounded superstition and religious thought (today we would refer to it as ideology… we have our own cave walls), and holds that we must submit those who claim to be good shepards to the test or gauntlent of their wisdom. They should be able to demonstrate their knowledge in order to demonstrate that they are fit to lead in religious, ethical, and political matters. Just read The Statesman or The Republic. It’s easy to disagree with Plato’s politics and metaphysic, but not his sentiment. The paradox, of course, is that once the would-be statesman demonstrates to me that he has the knowledge or wisdom that would make him fit to rule, we no longer need him as he has now given us this knowledge and we are now capable of self-direction and self-governance. Plato and Socrates are sly this way. It is a damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation: If you cannot demonstrate that you have knowledge then you are unfit to rule and we should shut our ears to your words. If you can demonstrate that you have knowledge or wisdom, then you are fit to rule, but we no longer need you because in demonstrating your wisdom you give us your wisdom.
Socrates and Plato, perhaps without realizing it, will free men and women… Men and women that would direct themselves. Their clarion call is the call to an end to all authority– To all parents, teachers, priests, kings, pundits, and obfuscatory sacred texts, so that men and women might direct themselves through the light of their own faculties. This, it seems to me, is the essence of the philosophical endeavor: The creation of free men and women. Men and women free from the bonds of charismatic and manipulative authorities. Men and women free of the fears and anxieties borne of superstition, obfuscating religion, and deceptive ideology. Men and women that direct themselves, that are their own legislators after the fashion described by Kant in his magnificent “What Is Enlightenment?”. Men and women who have become active, and are not the passive agents of their desires (hence the interest and importance of psychoanalysis, neuroscience, biology, anthropology, and sociology). Men and women who are able to overcome their material conditions and the forces of capital that perpetually place them at a disadvantage (I live in a “right to work” state, which means a “right to be arrested if you go on strike because you’re being taken advantage of by those who have the money”). It seems to me that this project must be perpetually renewed. That we must forever resist falling into defeatest skepticism. That we must forever resist the temptations of crypto-theology. What does it mean to both become free and to create free men and women today? How is it possible to renew such a project today and escape the sad forces that trouble our souls?