The natural laws that the academics and intellectuals have for centuries been trying to think and feel out of existence, the laws undergirding all of reality, do not kowtow to the thoughts and actions of mere human beings. They continue to inform reality and will overwhelm anyone who does not bow to them, as all the tragic heroes learned, as we are learning.
Late last night I received a phone call. Its ring shattered the intense stillness that filled my home and myself. I was painting in that fastidious way that is mine, not content with the light, the colors, the brushes, but stubbornly plowing onwards, focusing on the strokes, all thoughts of myself and my uncertainties receding with the rhythm of a job getting patiently done. I reached for my phone, and a shudder joined the jolt. Who was trying to reach me was an old family friend. It was the second time in two days that he was doing so.
It was not an urgent call, I knew. Family networks broadcast news more swiftly and securely than any professional one. Had something been truly amiss (or wondrous), I would have known.
I did not have the strength to answer.
My life has become a balancing act: a routine of rituals that must be meticulously respected and repeated because it is they that have made my COVID-caging and curfew bearable. Reading Aquinas and Sheen, writing, praying, addressing bureaucratic and academic matters, organizing events, speaking to students, doing the most in-depth cleaning that my apartment has ever known: scanning and shredding files, spackling and painting, sanding and varnishing. It is my ora et labora, and it works today as much as it did then, unveiling and strengthening the links between my hands, my mind, and my heart: my acts, thoughts, and deep-seated desires.
Taking the call, I feared, would upset my balance. It was not having to suspend my painting and schedule that bothered me, I realized, as I looked at the paint brush that I held in my hand. It was the awareness that conversations with some friends, some relatives even—and especially that old family friend—can stir up longstanding dissonances that are best kept quiescent. It is funny how we know these things, a bit like the way in which wild herbivores instinctively shy away from an amanita phalloides, a death cap.
After a few minutes of reflection and cleanup, I took pity on Sam and called him back. The insistence of his calling meant that he—like all of us stuck in this limbo—needed human contact. How can one not respond to a plea for help? It was a risk, of course, to place the call. None of us knows what will come out of Sam’s mouth. Above all, I did not know how I would handle whatever he did end up saying. The oddest things can disrupt me these days: the scent of a perfume that I was given in Armenia, the bleeps from my long-fled neighbor’s smoke detectors, a photograph, the unnatural quiet in the streets below coupled with the helicopters patrolling Fifth Avenue.
That was the crux of my problem. Had I known how I would react to whatever odd thing was said—and, above all, how I would respond to his replies to my reactions—I would have had no compunctions whatsoever about taking the call. If one is immune to poison, he can risk eating any mushroom.
What ensued were a few minutes of lighthearted chatting on his part—and a bit of purring on mine—about his new job. It was followed by a question: “Do you think that I am humble?” In the spirit of the carefree conversation in which we were engaged, I threw caution to the wind and spoke my mind. With a polite chuckle—the aural version of a smile—I simply and softly responded, “No.”
Truth be told, his question had genuinely amused me. It reminded me of the story in Boethius’s Consolation of the young man bent upon proving that he was a philosopher to a man who was known to be such. After a long debate with the wise man, in which he showed off his dialectical and rational dexterity, the young man finally asked the wise one, “So have I proven that I am a philosopher?” To which the wise one calmly replied, “You might have, had you not asked.” So is it for all questions about ourselves born of that curious mixture of our deep-seated needs to know ourselves and to be accepted and our deep-rooted arrogance, that entrenched tendency we have to bend others to our own wills and needs.
I did not breathe a word about Boethius to Sam. How could I have? I know the feel of the young want-to-be-philosopher’s shoes very well: They sit in my closet, when they are not on my feet. I did not want Sam to know that I had spotted his pair, and that were gaudy with want, fear, confusion, and pretense. When one wears those shoes, I know by experience, one stands on quicksand. Everything and anything can spark a nasty reaction from the wearer.
Much to my relief, my chuckle and “No” were met with a laugh. It was, however, only very brief respite, and was quickly followed by an ominous return to the query: “So you don’t think that I am a humble person?” he asked. Then, releasing me from the responsibility of responding, he continued in his jocular tone, “But I think I am humble. Come on,” he coaxed, “I am humble.” And then more seriously, “But I really am a humble person.”
Realizing that the conversation had veered towards the toxic, I quickly steered the call to the boat shed. “Ah,” I said with a smile and the warmest voice I could muster, “that is a great conundrum. Do we really know ourselves? Remember Socrates and the Oracle? No wise man considers himself wise. But this should be discussed over a good glass of Malbec. A Nebbiolo, perhaps?” Then I quickly added, and with a deep sigh, “There I go dreaming again, I should just stop. It just makes this COVID-caging and curfews worse. You should see the City. It’s mostly sleeping beauty with pockets of molten lava. It would give you the chills. But I don’t want to complain. You have a new job! That’s great.” “Yeah,” he replied, “Thanks.” And at that, I said my good-byes and hung up, proud of myself for not letting getting dragged into what promised to be an extremely unsettling exchange. I had, I thought, dodged a bullet.
The next morning, a text message bleeped on my phone while I was drinking my first coffee: “Classifying people to their faces is a form of aggression. The funny thing is that you were laughing about my having said that I thought I was humble. So besides classifying me to my face you also made fun of me.”
I am sure that anyone who reads this has suffered similar attacks on human rationality, though not perhaps stretched between a bout of late-night painting during a COVID-19 lockdown and early morning cups of coffee. Attacks of this sort are becoming the “new norm” in this age of self-referentiality, an age in which we quite literally are told both that we really are what we believe we are simply because we believe it, and that everyone must respect and accept the fact that we really are what we believe ourselves to be. We are surrounded by emperors and their new flesh, replete with those who would enforce our kowtows to people’s illusions and false judgments.
“Classifying people to their faces is a form of aggression.” And so too, apparently, is letting people see our spontaneous reactions to the hilarity of operational fallacies—those fallacies wherein the act of asserting something directly contradicts what one is asserting, like my presently asserting in writing that “I cannot write in the English language” does. Well-deserved giggles are aggressive acts of jeering.
It is not surprising, I thought, as I looked at the text message (that was quickly joined by another cruder and more threatening one), that many would make claims like these today. They are simply the consequence of centuries of atrocious philosophical methods and premises: the demonstration both of Aquinas’s claim that parvus error in principio magnus est in fine—a small mistake in the beginning [or principle] makes for a large one in the end—and of that ominous Latin adage motus in fine velocior—change accelerates at the end.
Modern philosophy was built upon self-referentiality. Descartes deduced that he was a “thinking thing” and that his body was extrinsic to him, from the facts that he thought, and could think of himself as distinct from his body. Technicians point out that he used Leibnitz’s Law—that claims both that what is indistinguishable in mente must be identical in re, and that what is distinguishable in mente must be distinct in re—so to deduce. This last claim is technically true. The Law is simply not. It reifies our thoughts, presupposes that our minds are the standards of truth, and leads to absurd conclusions.
It is no big step from Descartes’s application of Leibnitz’s Law, to Sam’s claiming that if he thinks that he is a “humble thing,” then he must be one, or politicians’ and academics’—the intelligentsia’s—stating that if a decathlete thinks that he is “a woman,” then he must be one, and so on and so forth.
The real question, I mulled as I read Sam’s texts that continued to bleep on my phone and become more and more toxic, is not how did we get where we are? The path that took us from fear, to the desire to control the world, to claiming homo mensura—man is the measure of reality—is obvious. It is the same path that led to eating the apple, to the killing of a brother, to the building of Babel, to the killing of Uriah, to slavery, to genocide, to any and every form of sin. All of them are predicated on some version of homo mensura.
The real question, I thought, is where do we go from here? And what was I to do with an ever-growing number of nasty text messages from Sam?
It is obvious that if the moderns continue to dictate our agenda, our intelligentsia will consummate its tragedy, its Macbethian tragedy. Tragedies are the apotheosis of myopia, and there is nothing quite as myopic as a group of people that insists that what it thinks (or feels) is necessarily true: that those fishbowls in which they stuff themselves and other people are reality itself. Amanitae virosae, or what we more commonly call ‘destroying angels,’ are not and will not ever be genteel things, even if fishbowl dwellers might feel and insist that they are, as they tell us to kill cows to reduce methane emissions.
The natural laws that the academics and intellectuals have for centuries been trying to think and feel out of existence, the laws undergirding all of reality, do not kowtow to the thoughts and actions of mere human beings. They continue to inform reality and will overwhelm anyone who does not bow to them, as all of the tragic heroes learned, as we are learning.
So too will it be for Sam, I thought. His messages, I knew, would continue for days (I could feel it coming) to try to bombard me into admitting that I am a female dog of the particularly virulent sort for hurting his feelings and not admitting that he is humble. This will not make him humble. Nor will it make his adjusting to his new company easier.
But what was I to do with Sam? Where to go from here? As I asked myself this question, I picked up the torchiere that I had moved so that it would not get filled with dust from the floor sanding. It automatically turned on, and I got a good view of the painting that I had done the night before. It was so bad that I burst out laughing and actually voiced: “Wow, oh wise would-be-philosopher with your ora et labora, your deep judgments are as myopic as are those you complain about. You are falling into the trap that you describe. You are making yourself the measure of reality too.”
And then I realized that what I need (and Sam too) is not to take ourselves too seriously and let the light shine on ourselves, our thoughts, and our acts. Never work without the light.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.