The Time for our Consolation of Philosophy

Facundo Rodriguez

‘Would that our age could now return
To those pure ways of leading life.
But now the passion to possess
Burns fiercer than Mount Etna’s fire.
Alas for the man, whoever he was,
Who first dug heaps of buried gold
And diamonds content to hide,
And gave us perils of such price!’

When Boethius wrote these verses, he was awaiting his execution in Pavia. Sunken in the melancholic grief of imprisonment and under the influence of the perfidious voices of the Muses of Poetry, Boethius saw humanity as exiled from the unalterable laws of God and subject to Fortune’s callous wheel: ‘To humans acts alone denied thy fit control as Lord of all’. To the feeling of growing schism between the obscurity of humanity’s fortuitous  destiny and the transparency of the world’s predictability – the ‘final burden’ on Boethius’ heart –  Philosophy, in her clothes of imperishable materials, responds by asking Boethius ‘Do you remember that you are a man?’ and, after Boethius’ affirmative reply, Philosophy adds ‘Can you, then, tell me what a man is?’. Her diagnosis is clear: ‘you have forgotten your true nature’.

Ernesto Sabato tells us that only when our conception of the Universe crumbles, becomes devoid of its interpretative scheme, and we feel strangers in a world that has lost all its familiarity, we turn back to ourselves and ask about our nature. Boethius did so when he felt that God handed human affairs over to Fortune; Sabato, when he felt that technical progress had turned against humanity in the Second World War. With them, many others have started their intellectual search of ‘the pure ways of leading life’ by posing an anthropological conception that was at odds with the metaphysical scheme they intended to abandon, such was evidently Marx’s project, but it was also Hobbes’, Kant’s, and McIntyre’s. It would be too easy to justify the ambition of this short essay by means of comparing the current biological crisis to the experiences of Boethius or Marx, but it would be equally insincere to do so. The spirit that underlies and justifies my present enterprise is not that of someone quarantined in the French countryside, but the spirit of he who coming from afar walks the streets of London for the first time.

What an intimate experience it is to stroll around the rushing streets of London for the first time, when walking ramblingly is still an option for us for whom it had been custom! Corners, windshields, newspaper sellers, underground entrances, street-crossing, pubs compose a barren grey on which thousands of masterless feet serve as sufficient guidance to the hurrying crowd. Yet, it is not the strenuous rhythmic movement of the shoes nor the pulling force of the crowd what fills one’s soul with uneasiness, but it is the solemn silence with which all this movement happens. Octavio Paz, paraphrasing Bergson, explains that the chronometric measurement of time makes instantaneous phantoms out of all bodies.  Maybe the evermoving silence of these streets was a reminder to me of those passages that I had read without fully understanding in the tranquillity of my hometown. Possibly, that nervousness that is felt when confronted with London’s spectacle is only due to us who have known the ‘secret miracle’ of turning an instant into eternity, miracle which Borges thought was the only but infinite capital of the Criollo with his Mate and Truco:

‘At the boundaries of the table
The lives of the others halt.
Inside, there is a strange country:
The adventures of ‘Envido’[mfn]In the card game of Truco, ‘Envido’ is the Word used to challenge the opponent to one of the gambles that compose the game, to which the opponent can reply with “I want” or “I don’t want”. A negative answer would give one point to the opponent.[/mfn] and ‘I want’[mfn]This is my own translation from Spanish.[/mfn]

But it would be unfair to insinuate that every Englishman has lived under this torturous regime without noticing. G. K. Chesterton already heard the ‘fetters clanking’ of those Londoners carrying ‘the heaviest chain ever tied to a man’, the ‘watch-chain’. And Lewis Carroll had made this problem all too obvious even before – or at least that is what I thought.

Sabato ties the inhuman modern pace to the precision of modern time taking, and that precision to modernity’s general pursuit of abstraction, both in thinking through Reason and in living through Capital. He tells us that it is with the Crusades that humanity abandons the spiritual values of the middle ages and turns its interest to commerce for, after all, the Crusades did not succeed in preserving neither Constantinople nor the Holy Sepulchre, but only in re-establishing commerce with the East. It is in the name of commercial dynamism, Sabato argues, that technical knowledge was developed and with-it, theoretical precision. It took only a few years, he concludes not without the sorrow of he who sees himself as part of this malefic enterprise, for ‘trees, animals and flowers, men and his passions, to become cold sinusoidal functions, logarithms, Greek letters, triangles and probability distributions’.

The abstraction of modern thought finds its philosophical zenith in Kantian anthropology, as the culmination of the enlightenment ‘liberating’ project. This project, which intended to free the individual form the fetters of theology and teleology, ended up inventing what Marx calls ‘the abstraction of the political man’, the modern individual. Kant – expression of the unavoidable failure of such project – in his intention to free human agency from the passivity in which Hobbes’ and Hume’s instrumental conception of practical reason had subsumed it, abstracted everything that can be properly called human from human agency. The Kantian autonomous will pays a high price for its autonomy, abandoning desires, passions and all type of ends to leave nothing but the formal principle of volition and the Categorical Imperative. This liberated will is freed not from the yoke of heteronomy but from the essential continuity composed of ends and plans that make the idea of a human life intelligible, what Macintyre calls the unity of a human life. This unity is given by the inevitable teleological nature of our actions that, far from being determined a priori, require a propitious ranking of ends based on our own good qua human agents. In trying to avoid reason being the slave of the passions, Kant secedes with his transcendental line Reason from humanity all together, thus executing the final and true division of labour that Marx denounces between ‘pure consciousness’ and material activity. Marx’s rebellion against the ‘abstract thinking’ of post-Kantian philosophy and of the Young Hegelians is maybe the most serious diagnosis of the abstracting project of modernity that, as the early Marx saw clearly in 1844, was one and the same division of labour in thinking and in living – in philosophy and in political economy. This project was, as Philosophy makes it clear to Boethius, the abstraction of human activity from its ‘true nature’.

As soon as economic activity stopped being about production to become a matter of commerce, arithmetic and abstract ratios replaced wood, fabrics, tables and vegetables as its content. One of the forms of alienation that Marx describes in the 1844 Manuscripts is the alienation of the worker from the product of its labour: ‘the object that labour produces, its product, confronts it as an alien being, as a power independent of the producer.’ This is not only a problem of ownership for Marx, it is not just that the worker does not own the products of her labour; it is a problem of recognition, of the worker failing to recognise that the product of her work is in fact dependent and not alien to her productive activity. Daniel Brudney, with some irony, explains that Marx is not saying that the worker fails to realise that the chair she just made is a result of her labour. What the worker fails to see is that the chair, the factory, the laws of political economy, the political structure, the state and its functions are contingently dependent on her work. The worker ‘works monotonously in a factory turning out a small type of screw, which will fit into a plate he will never see; to form part of a gun he will never see; to be used in a battle he will never see, and about the merits of which he knows far less than the Renaissance rascal knew about the purposes of the poison and the dagger’, explains Chesterton. As capitalism develops, from the Medici to contemporary industrial ways, its means and instruments become always more powerful because they become more abstract. Due to the crooked and abstract ways of industrialism, as Chesterton denounces, the worker’s small screw is no longer seen as the essential component of a weapon and of the battle, which the worker sees as a complete alien power.

The instruments of western economies far from renouncing to their ambitions of technical abstraction, had, in the last two decades, reached levels of inhumanity never dreamed by Sabato or Chesterton, let alone Marx. It is not uncommon now to see investment bankers, consultants and lobbyist completely ignoring how their work relates to the dirty nails of a farmer. The technical means of commerce are no longer just too abstract for the worker to comprehend in her daily productive activity, but they are also too abstract for the merchant himself, who uses them and profits from them, to comprehend. In their abstraction, the instruments of commerce have gained complete independence from almost all the economic players, who ignore the functioning and nature of these. This Ignorance, MacIntyre thinks, is hidden behind the idea of economic and social scientific ‘expertise’. It is unsurprising, adds MacIntyre, that the historical process through which the expert manager and the impersonal capital became the essential organisers of modern economic activity is the same process that led to the loss of the human community, the unity of the human life and the enjoyment of those goods that are internal to, and only enjoyable through, the performance of our human activities. If humanity has been left out of our intellectual conceptions and our activities have been completely detached from our needs qua human beings to become an exercise of institutionalised madness, it is not a surprise that we cannot make sense of the notion of an integral human community and of a human life as a quest for the human good for ‘we have forgotten our true nature’.

The time for our consolation of philosophy has arrived as we exclaim ‘Would that our age could now return to those pure ways of leading life.’ But what are those pure ways of life? What would Philosophy’s remedy be for us that we now weep as Boethius wept? What a mistake it would be, after attributing all our ills to abstraction, to think that Philosophy would self-banish from human domains to never be seen again. Instead, we should imagine Philosophy, in a tender image that sometimes comes to me, with her burning eyes and clothes of imperishable material, bending her knee amid local shepherds in awe to a carpenter’s new-born child that cries in a small manger. That was the time when, as C.S. Lewis says, the Truth was smaller than a stable. That night, Philosophy learned to stop looking beyond the stars for the Truth that now laid before her in a wooden crib. In Christ, all God and all Human, there is a synthesis of pure form and matter and the proof that the ways of God are not the ways of the philosopher but the ways of the artisan. St. John tells us that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God and God himself tells Moises that He is The Being. Yet, in His purely formal nature as the primary cause, His essential enterprise is still profoundly practical: Creating and caring. What a poetic expression of this truth was from God to teach His art to His true son through Joseph, the carpenter.

As humans, the road of the artisan is the road we should take, the road that MacIntyre thinks Marx did not take in his 1845 critique of philosophy. We should solve our theoretical inquires practically by engaging in those practices which standards of excellence require the communities in which human nature feels at home and the development of the virtues that make individuals flourish. It is in engaging in these practices that ‘the question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking will become a practical question’. It is by living in these communities in which our individual ends converge with those of the community in the standard of excellence of the shared practice that we will feel that we have returned to the pure ways of leading life. Such a community is the Christian, Jewish or Muslim community, but it is also the community of fisherman, carpenters, poets and the political community humanly understood. It is in our daily labour and the conformation of social relations at a human scale that we will stop Philosophy from ‘piercing the sky to be lost to human sight’ as Boethius tells us, to keep her at ‘the average human size’ like She was that night at the foot of Jesus’ crib.

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