Living in isolation flattens days, homogenizes them. Gone are the trains, the colleagues, the students. Gone the friends, the flights, the lectures. Gone the plans, the urgency, the team. I am no longer flummoxed by the mere thought of Descartes’s mad flight.
So here I am back at my desk. It is another day, a gloriously beautiful day with clear blue skies, a breeze, and majestic clouds. The rain that pelted the City is a distant memory. I have to strain to remember when the day of the rain was. It was not yesterday, I know, or during Holy Week. Was it during Easter Week, perhaps?
Living in isolation flattens days, homogenizes them. Gone are the trains, the colleagues, the students. Gone the friends, the flights, the lectures. Gone the plans, the urgency, the team. I have no word of the book that was to have been released a week ago.
I cannot hear the heartbeat of the week. No call to come together to share in the awesome. No more rowing together towards the unknown port for which we all yearn: կորսըւաճ հի՛ն հայրենիք, Ուրկէ ինկաճ հոգքս դեռ կուլայ կարoտն եթերին—“the ancient lost homeland, from which my fallen soul still weeps in longing for the heavens.” The coxswain has gone missing, and with him the rhythm of life.
I am alone at my desk on this beautiful day. I write to an unknown you.
I do not want to wax nostalgic. It is the temptation, of course, to fill the present void with a romanticized past: to imagine myself in a medieval monastery working at Cadfael’s side, to remember the august booming of the great bell of Salzburg—the Salvator Mundi—on the walk from the practice house at the Schloss Frohnburg with Bronwyn, my sister. It would be easy to let myself be quieted by warm memories of other times, of simpler times when that “certain slant of light,” that specific company, that place, were all so harmoniously united that I caught a momentary glance of what a now really is.
There is something dangerous about this isolation. The enforced solitude—with its attendant lack of credible information—has made me incapable of perceiving the present in any significant way. This, I know, is why I cannot immediately recall when the day of the rain was. This is why the days blend into one another. The imagination, memories, I feel as I sit here, become more powerful when one is sense-deprived, and with them the emotions.
The thought that I can recapture the snippets of the ‘real,’ the really real once lived, by replaying them in my mind is beguiling. The glow that the embers of my real or imagined memories produce in me feel terribly like a path out of the crushing weight of isolation. That those embers die quickly only fans the need to find more of them: to chase them down in the recondite parts of my mind.
I am living in a pseudo-eternity. It is unnatural to me. I now understand Dante’s selva oscura—dark forest—and Boethius’s scribenda Camenae—Muses. Emotions are the true opium of the masses: necant hominum mentes, assuefaciunt morbo, non liberant—they kill the minds of men, accustoming them to the disease, they do not cure.
I am no longer flummoxed by the mere thought of Descartes’s mad flight or by the generations of philosophers who picked up his gauntlet and devoted their energies to proving or disproving that we can know the world around us—ruining the lives of millions upon millions of people in the process. It is not that I have had a change of heart and have suddenly come to believe that I can coherently doubt our sense knowledge. We have to trust our senses in order to be in a position to doubt their veridicity: they have to be truth-bearing in order for us to be able to doubt them, of this I am sure.
Nor have I come to believe that anyone can coherently believe that Descartes’s epistemic problem is the foundational one for philosophy, for my own search for reality. I might have trouble understanding the present as I sit at my desk in isolation, I might feel the terrible pull of the emotions, but I can still recognize that grounding my quest for the truth, for reality, in my engaging in the question of whether or not I can know anything at all is self-referentially contradictory. I cannot coherently question my capacity to know while I am using that capacity in order to do so. It is a mystery to me that generations of thinkers can have continued on Descartes’s mad flight despite this obvious fact. Could they really not have seen that they were traveling—albeit in the wrong direction—while they denied that they could leave the port? Could Hume really not have seen that if he was right, then he could not have known or written about it?
And while I am on this train of thought, I know, emotions and pseudo-eternities notwithstanding, that it is simply impossible to ground my search for the truth, for reality, in my questioning if I can know anything other than myself. I know that I could not know to question my capacity to know these things if I did not in some sense already know them. Questions are not magical things that pop up ex nihilo in the mind. Questions are about things that the questions themselves cannot generate. These things must in one shape or form be there, and I must be able to know them. Were they not and could I not, I could not ask questions about my capacity to know them.
What I really want to know about what appears to me is not if I can know it, but what that thing is. And I must in some sense already have part of the answer to the latter question, if I am to have a standard with which to measure my knowledge of it. It is sheer madness to deny this. Who really cares if I can imagine unicorns and sphynxes when I am reality-starved?
I have not lost my horror at the Cartesian move. By making his capacity to know things other than himself (rather than the things other than himself that he purportedly wanted to know) the crux of his quest for the truth, for reality, Descartes both implicitly denied that that which prompted his questions about his capacity to know things other than himself—the things he perceived—was the standard of truth (the only thing by which he could really measure his capacity to know the things he perceived) and he turned the standard of truth into himself.
If instead of asking who a person you meet is, you ask yourself if you can know that person, your focus will no longer be that person: who he is, and how to get to know him. You will be concerned with yourself, and yourself alone. And while the person, the real person, who prompted your questions would be the measure of your capacity to know him if you were really interested in the reality outside of yourself, it is yourself and yourself alone who becomes that measure, if all you are interested in is knowing if you can know that person.
I have not lost my horror at the Cartesian move. By making himself the object of his inquiry, making himself the standard of truth for his inquiry, Descartes made himself the source of his own mental nourishment. This is why his second Meditation sounds so eerily like a parody of Aristotle’s glorious passages on God in Book Λ of the Metaphysics.
I have not lost my horror for the Cartesian move. It is quite literally diabolical: it separates the knower from reality and thereby turns the human mind from receiver into source.
What I am no longer flummoxed by is the reason why Descartes took his flight from reality—and Hobbes too, as different as the runway of English flight looks at first glance from the French one. It is our insane times that make that reason clear.
I have always presupposed that there is something to get to know in the world that stimulates my questions: that the sun that is warming my skin is something to get to know, and the majestic clouds too, my books, that wondrous thing that are human persons. I have always taken it for granted that reality is inherently intelligible, that it is beautiful, good, mentally nourishing: that reality is in its essence my comfort food and joy. It is because I believe this, because I yearn for reality that I have the tenacity to see arguments to their ends: to make my way through the storm. I know that I will have greater hold on the beautiful after the fight. It is because I believe this, because I yearn for reality that my present pseudo-eternity is so painful. It is because I believe this, that I am fighting through the cloud of emotions that obfuscate my mind.
I have always opened myself up to reality: absorbed from it as much as I could so that I could glean the causes, structures, categories, natures, that would make my reception of it clearer, more complete. I have, by the Grace of God, retained wonder, an insatiable desire to know, hope.
Today’s COVID-19 makes me question my assumptions, my basic stance. It is not the disease that does so. Diseases have been with us for as long as we can remember. It is the response to COVID-19 that alarms me: the cacophony of voices that one hears pontificating about the disease, the absurd number of groundless claims, the terror in my students and colleagues, the beady eyes of the wolves and rats ready to take advantage of the sheep, the missing shepherds. The world I see looks like a menacing, chaotic, tangled jungle.
Why did the governor issue a mask and glove diktat in the very meeting in which he announced that the number of COVID-19 cases had already peaked in his state and that he has such an abundance of medical equipment that he has shipped ventilators to other states that need them? It makes no sense. If the governor believes both that the number of COVID-19 cases has already peaked in his state and that he has a superabundance of equipment, he cannot but also believe that a sudden massive new outbreak of COVID-19 is not possible. If this is the case, why the diktat? One cannot really simultaneously believe both that “it cannot get worse” and that “it might get worse.” If we are told that we are already safely in the driveway in our long journey home, why are we also suddenly commanded to put on a second seatbelt? Why has no one called the governor out on this?
How are we to understand the figures that the important experts are giving us? I am presently puzzling over the numbers recently heard pronounced by one of them. If “one percent of the population is infected,” the good doctor said, and the “testing is ninety-nine percent specific,” then “when you find a positive, fifty percent of the time it will be a real positive, and fifty percent of the time it won’t be.” What does this mean? It sounds an awful lot like gibberish. How does a test that is ninety-nine percent specific yield a fifty percent error rate? I realize that these experts are tired. I realize also that they have never been on stages quite as large as these. This does not make what they are saying any more credible, or me any less confused.
Examples like these make Descartes’s mad flight intelligible. In the presence of chaos—and his was the chaos of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648)—Descartes has to have assumed that there was no there there: no good, beautiful, intelligible reality to understand outside of himself. He must have seen the chaos and assumed that the world was inherently evil, ugly, valueless. This would explain why he turned away from the world, and into himself, decided that the one thing he could gaze upon was himself, and thought that he himself was the only way out of the crushing solitude of isolation, the standard of the validity of that way, the truth if you will, and the resting place of his journey: the life he sought.
The more I reflect on it, the more it seems likely that it is because he assumed that the world was inherently unintelligible that Descartes rejected the senses (and reality), and not vice-versa. It is because he assumed that it was evil and ugly, valueless, that he made himself the standard of reality. This assumption seems to be confirmed by his claim that the purpose of philosophy is to make men “the masters and possessors of nature.” Descartes’s plan was to formulate the project that would give elegance, clarity, distinctness to the world. It was to become a demiurge who would force the world to become something that he could live in.
Oddly enough, this was also Hobbes’s response to the inanity of Seventeenth Century wars, as different as the path and the details of that response are. Hobbes too became convinced that human beings are inherently evil: envious, greedy, vain, murderous. He too thought that the only possible response to the inherent ugliness of reality is to tame it through a rational framework: to force it to work. He thought that framework to be a social contract that would bind men to laws through fear.
As I sit here at my desk on this beautiful day, with the brilliant blue sky and the majestic clouds, I realize that I too risk falling into the modern trap of believing that the most beautiful part of reality are my own dreams and memories: that my mind and my mind alone is the path out of an isolation that is made that much more crushing because of the perils in the jungle-like response to COVID-19.
I realize that this is the case not just because my memories are beautiful. More deeply, my temptation, when I hear news from world around me, is to meet fire with fire. If the orphans of the fathers of modern philosophy have succeeded in convincing many that reality is inherently ugly, evil, valueless—“deplorable,” perhaps?—and that the purpose of the leader is to make himself the [way} out of the ugliness, the truth of the path into intelligibility, and the voice of the life to come, once he has become “the master and possessor of nature”—and by all accounts they have succeeded more than any of us have been willing to admit—then the “good” thinker, who believes in the inherent “goodness, beauty, and intelligibility” of nature and mankind must force the evil ones who threaten to take over our world into submission: impose his proper view on them before it is too late.
It is my rage that fuels this dream, and my fear.
As the rage flows through my veins, a ray of sunlight warms my skin and breaks its enchantment. It is my Puddleglum, my Marsh-wiggle. No. Rage is no way out of my selva oscura. Letting the scribenda Camenae stoke my emotions will only get my mind back into the pseudo-eternity that trapped it.
The sun is beautiful, the clouds majestic. The coxswain might be missing, but not the port for which I yearn. Reality is beautiful, and intelligible too. It gives me the strength and joy to sit at my desk and wait.
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The featured image is a detail from René Descartes in Conversation with the Queen of Sweden, Kristina (1884) by Nils Forsberg (1842-1934) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.