The Beautiful Woman in Machiavelli’s L’asino d’oro

A modern philosophy essay. 19 October 2010.

The beautiful woman is introduced in the second chapter when our hero finds himself lost in the forest at dusk. She is “of the utmost beauty, but breezy and brash…with her locks blonde and disheveled” (II.49-50). While no personal name is ascribed to her, she knows our hero by name at their first encounter. This mysterious and clairvoyant woman represents Machiavelli’s view of ancient philosophy: its seductiveness, novelty, and wisdom as told by our hero, as well as the danger and defection it harbors, indicated by his hesitation, shame, and fear in her presence.

According to Circe, however, the beautiful woman has a very different role. She still bears somewhat of a resemblance to her former self as ancient philosophy, but a fragmented one at best. She is forced to live in the shadow of Circe, who fled “all human society and law” and “lives as an enemy to men” (II.106-7, 109). Circe is Machiavelli’s representation of Christianity, which has come to rule men and has seized political power in our hero’s present day. It wields a power far more devastating than any regional usurper could aspire to; it dominates the mind of the common man by presenting his unsettled mind with a remarkably appealing offer of final answers and a promise of immortality.

The problem with ancient philosophy, Machiavelli seems to imply, is that it was too theoretical and rhetorical; it never came to any conclusions, but incessantly turned around in circles instead. It lacked the methodical technique essential to achieving the end it claimed to pursue. Reflected in the beautiful woman, ancient philosophy viewed chance and fortune as the main arbitrators in man’s affairs, and fate is always trusted to extend a benevolent hand through the inscrutable workings of nature. This faith in the benevolence of nature is precisely what made philosophy vulnerable because it conveyed a concept of fatalism and predestination that retarded philosophical inquiry. “A philosopher is always in quest of something; the believer, on the other hand, has ended his quest even though what he believes may be absurd. It is utter obedience that makes for real virtue if one believes in divine laws. How can one be virtuous and at the same time question what is itself a good?” (attributed to Tertullian, Ferm 147).

The beautiful woman reveals her opinion to our hero as they discuss his plight into the forest: “Through your own fault did this not overtake you, as it happens to some, but because Chance was opposed to your good conduct. Chance closed upon you the gates of pity above all when she led you into this place so savage and strong” (III.79-83). Under the employ of Circe, her words suggest a second meaning. Our hero has fallen because it could not be otherwise, for original sin has tainted all of humanity. But he disagrees, it is rather “[his] little wit, vain hope and vain opinion have made [him] fall into this place” (II.85-6).

Christianity recognized the opportunity it had to use the familiar modes and orders of the newly revived philosophies of the early Renaissance. Aristotelianism and Neo-Platonism were instrumental to helping it establish a following (Kristeller 231, 232). Subsequently, Christianity adopted the ancient pinnacle of the good and transformed it into God, who was from then on the sole source of all charity. Circe thus imbibed the beautiful woman with the understanding of humanity as fallen and disgraced, unable of its own capacity to be the honorable. It discouraged man from his former ideal to be magnanimous and autonomous. In order to be virtuous, he must now be humble and surrender himself to God’s will.

The beautiful woman, in conversation with our hero, perpetuates the Christian ideology of salvation. She explains “because that Providence which supports the human species intends you to bear this affliction for your greater good…you must altogether lose your human semblance…by putting you in this place, the ill is deferred, not canceled” (emphasis added, III.118-121, 124-5). This “ill” she describes perhaps implies man’s suffering after the fall. Our hero can delay its effect for a time, but it will be dealt eventually. Christianity proposes that man can find refuge only in Christ, and in this way, it tailors a solution that points only towards itself to a problem that it declares in all mankind.

Christianity declares, according to Machiavelli, that man can only achieve glory when he humbles himself to the Lord. Humility, then, replaces the ancient ideal of pride as the highest virtue. In this way, all men are equal before God regardless of class, race, culture, age, or any other worldly limitation. Our hero is informed about Circe’s power when the beautiful woman tells him about the beasts in her flock: “you must know that in the world these animals you see were once men like yourself…each mourns for your fall and your suffering and your loss (II.127-8, 133-4). Transformed by Circe’s “special virtue…given [to] her by heaven”, all of the beasts fierce and tall, small and timid alike go to pasture together (II.136-140).

Our hero’s concern, however, is not morally driven, but motivated by the potential loss of intellectual inquiry that civilization would be deprived of if philosophy was discarded. In the [hero’s] present time it is already subject to the fancy of Christianity, but now more than ever, it is in danger of losing sight of its purpose. To reclaim it, philosophy must extract itself from its entanglement with religion, and Machiavelli starts by shifting his concern to the same moral inquiry that the common man seeks.

At the beautiful woman’s suggestion, our hero takes the form of an ass. This guise will allow him to gain knowledge of the beasts’ condition and will provide him with the advantage he needs to appeal to the common man in a way that Christianity cannot. Humanism, Machiavelli declares, will reclaim philosophy’s throne; it will replace the Christian notion of charity and expose the deception of “the fall” that has enslaved men’s minds. It will have moral appeal because it will claim, as our hero also expressed, that “learning and eloquence, poetry and the arts, had flourished among the ancient Greeks and Romans but [have] declined in the successive ‘Dark Ages’” (Kristeller 231). Machiavelli sets our hero up to provide mankind relief from the fear and shame imposed on it by Christianity.

Before he sets out to explore the land of Circe’s domain, our hero spends an intimate night with the beautiful woman. This encounter invigorates him at a time when he is lacking confidence and focus. Their intimacy signifies his attainment of the knowledge of good and evil she possesses, for his quest would be unsuccessful without her.

After he has been equipped with the knowledge he needs, our hero is revealed the nature of the beasts in the beautiful woman’s flock. Some are “noble” and others are “voracious” (VI.55, 64), but all beasts are made pitiful by their condition because they have lost their ability to reason independently. They are mindlessly led by Christianity into ‘salvation’, when in fact the only equality they share is in the ‘shameful descent’ they confess.

The beautiful woman carries with her the last light of philosophy. The new ruler Circe threatens to extinguish it, but Machiavelli arranges our hero to expose her slander, thus installing a radical new philosophy. This philosophy rejects the teleology of the ancients and describes nature as an entity neither benevolent nor mutable, and stressing the practical application of philosophy, it seeks to restore political power to its rightful possessors. Ultimately, it encourages the exercise of mankind’s free will as the determinant of its future. Machiavelli proclaims a future that is not decided by fate, chance, fortune, divine intervention, or predestination, but a future contingent on man’s own action. Mankind is the master of its own affairs.

The Baconian reform of philosophy: The Apology

An essay on Modern philosophy.

30 November 2010

Prior to Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning, the end of philosophy was recognized as a species of contemplation for its own sake. Philosophical inquiry dealt with the idealistic whims of the higher-ups in society, those who held power (such as the Schoolmen, as Bacon calls them, and the Divines, or clergymen), where the separation of natural philosophy and science was not yet made, and the benefit of such inquiry was directed towards the individual. As was often the case of the ancients, this method could not yield any substantial truths, but instead amounted to a set of clever yet useless arguments. Because of this, Bacon comments, “so we see, artillery, sailing, printing, and the like, were grossly managed at first, and by time accommodated and refined; but contrariwise the philosophies and sciences of Aristotle, Plato, Democritus, Hippocrates, Euclides, Archimedes, of most vigour at the first, [were made] by time degenerate and imbased” (144). Philosophy was stagnating by recycling the same ideas in an effort to jump the gap between the ordinary courses of nature and the end of knowledge.

Roughly two centuries into the Renaissance, Bacon saw the opportunity to institute his own philosophy fashioned from years of instruction under the intellectual elites of the time, and born of his curiosity and criticism of his contemporaries. In his new doctrine outlined in The Advancement of Learning, Bacon creates the foundation for his new apology of philosophy. Most significantly, he renounces the end of philosophy as the inquiry into vain knowledge, or what he determines to be the brand of knowledge in accordance with the Genesis account of Creation. He insists “the greatest error above all the rest is the mistaking or misplacing of the last or furthest end of knowledge” (147). The proper end is revealed to “sincerely give a true account (of one’s) gift of reason, to the benefit and use of men” (147). As regards to the relationship between the knowledge of nature and that of the divine teachings, one is not in the position “out of the contemplation of nature, or the ground of human knowledges, to induce any verity or persuasion concerning the points of faith” (192).

Bacon first constructs his apology on the novelty of philosophy to be able to procure innovative solutions to problems. He refutes the archaic teachings of the Church and the revival of the Greek philosophical maxims that inhibit this, as he believed. And in order to do this, he dismisses the teleological endeavors of the ancients in The Advancement as Machiavelli did in his 1517 narrative The [Golden] Ass. Both works were monumental to the formation and implementation of new modes and orders, yet Bacon takes his work a step further in propelling philosophy into modernity. In his letter addressed to King James I, Bacon appeals to his majesty’s vanity, subversively flattering his knowledge and at the same time writing for those who would understand his ulterior motives. For all intents and purposes, however, it appears that Bacon did not wish to simply enlighten the few, but to persuade those in power to sympathize with his position. As a notable statesman and author, Bacon’s proposal of marriage between political power and philosophy under the guise of progress was probably very well-received. From his wide rule of political offices, it may at least be asserted that once introduced, Bacon’s teachings were certainly credible to a large audience and although subtle in his letter, the linguistic master’s true intent was not overlooked.

Bacon recognized that what is held in common among philosophers and theologians, citizens, and kings alike is their insatiable desire for answers. At the core of the human condition rests a necessity to comprehend the universal reality that lies within being. The fabric of both temporal and spatial existences constitutes the traditional philosophical dogma spanning the millennia. But Bacon was aware that there was another, relatively new but much greater power that captured the minds of men. The spiritual power of Christianity in particular, enveloped in the faith of the people, was the main political force of the time, and it was an obstacle because it encouraged the passions which Bacon so disapproved of and warned against as a sign of retrogression.

Bacon thus resolved to rework the traditional duality of passion and reason. Henceforth, philosophy would be independent in its own right, and it would command the proper method of truth-seeking, so that the results gained by philosophical exercises would not be skewed by the expectations of idealists. Knowledge (as a form of reason) must then be separated from the sensible passions, for nature itself admits of no passions, but only laws. Nature is impartial to the affairs of man, and the influences of such forces as chance, fortune, and fate are relative. Bacon reasons that it is humanity’s duty to unveil the perversions it harbors which blind it from the truth, and only after this revelation can man’s ultimate aspiration be satisfied, “which is immortality or continuance” (167). Bacon proposes that the fruits of his philosophy would be never-ending. To make this possible, he renounced the inquiry into first principles, concluding: “let no man, upon a weak conceit of sobriety or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain that a man can search too far…in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both” (126). This allows the continual pursuit of second principles and ends the aimless turnings-about of the ancients.

Although the Summa Lex of popular philosophy was discarded as the end of philosophy and knowledge, Bacon did not wholly dispose of it. While he seemed to admit that he theoretically found it impossible, he nonetheless saw its importance as an incentive for the idealists. Just as Machiavelli asserted that what man is by nature does not change, Bacon also realized that he had to provide an interpretation of his work for those who would never be able to see beyond their own illusions. Thus by leaving open his discussion of the Summa Lex, Bacon appeals to those minds that strain a lesser application to second causes as well as those with religious temperaments that would prefer a nature equal in perfection to God.

Bacon’s apology of philosophy proposes a radical reform to the formerly defunct end of knowledge. The mechanics of his new teachings distinguish him from all other philosophers. Rooted in the exposition of physics, Bacon’s outline provides a potentially endless succession of technological advancements that would revolutionize how society lives, functions, and communicates. It is not a solution or remedy to the problems of ancient philosophers, but rather a meditation that has uncovered the truest method of inquiry. Combined with political power, Humanitarianism is the new caritas that will deliver humanity into the progress of modernity and secure its mastery of nature.

Friendship and the Self

Another essay by yours truly. Submitted 10 December 2012.

The subject of friendship has surfaced repeatedly under the titles of prominent philosophers from varying cultures and time periods. From Socrates’ day to C.S. Lewis’ contemporary milieu, friendship has been praised as a moral achievement of human virtue in multiple contexts. Emerson eloquently stated that the essence of friendship is “entireness, a total magnanimity and trust” (232). Seneca cited the “inherent attractiveness” of friendship as a reason for why all men seek it (123). Even Kant had some nice things to say about friendship after explaining his reservations. But my purpose here is not to simply restate what the philosophers have said. I wish to provide a persuasive argument for why and how friendship arises in the self. Ultimately, this discussion will be crucial to forming a theory of what friendship is on both the theoretical and practical level.

My objective at the start of this course was to identify and assess a common thread between the philosophers we studied, but over time, I realized that identifying my own idea of friendship and comparing my experiences to our selections was an equally important step toward arriving at a conclusion. After all, how could I expect to take anything away from our discussions if I did not fully engage myself in the theories? Without a point of reference, I would have been completely lost. And yet, before I even realized what I was doing, my mind was comparing the text against my own beliefs. It was not until I made a conscious effort to reconcile them, however, that I arrived at any truly illuminating discoveries. This is what I will argue: that friendship is the highest engagement of the self in the world and the most accurate meter of truth. My small victories in engaging the authors reflected a greater human trope, namely, that earnest friendliness encourages a dialogue unparalleled in depth and perception.

Whatever medium might come into play, friendship can be rudimentarily described as a conscious interaction for mutual benefit between two same-searching individuals. What I mean to say is that my interaction with the text was friendly in that I recognized the author’s intent and created a dialogue with it that opened my perspective to new avenues of understanding. But I did not have a friendship with the text because it was impassive and non-responsive to my reactions. I did not achieve a true dialogue with the text but a likeness of a dialogue with the author. For this reason primarily, people can only share friendship with other people and not objects or animals. A person also cannot be friends with someone that he has never directly interacted with, including the deceased. This does not exclude people who communicate through medium like letters and texts, however, since a genuine interaction is achievable as long as the two are aware of one another. Still, a relationship based on not-in-person interactions is likely to be quite strained.

As a resource in cooperation with my investigation, I would like to bring in an article from the Journal of Social Philosophy by Kristjan Kristjansson. His article, entitled Parents and Children as Friends, makes a strong case against the traditional philosophical argument that parents and children cannot be friends. Using Aristotle’s model of friendship, Kristjansson claims “well-ordered, loving parent-child relationships…contain with them friendships” and that the incommensurability of these relationships does not necessarily imply incompatibility, a reference to a previous article called Friends and Lovers by Johann A. Klaasen (259). Kristjansson’s article is relevant in my argument not specifically for its treatment of the parent-child relationship, but more importantly for the valuable claims it makes in regard to Aristotle’s account of friendship and this description of the friend as “another self.” The author demonstrates a keen understanding of the issues presented by the Nicomachean Ethics and engages them insightfully by deconstructing the concepts of self-sufficiency and inequality as moral barriers to friendship.

Kristjansson introduces his argument by challenging what philosophers mean when they describe “true” or “real” friendship. He asserts that the prevailing opinion among philosophers seems to be that parents and children cannot be friends in the strict sense of the term, but that this view is considered to be “counter-intuitive to many laypeople and at least some philosophers” (250). Assuming that “laypeople” means people outside of the professional and academic communities, this would appear to be a small nod to the practical concerns of individuals who seek to understand how friendship works in action and not just on the idealistic theoretical level. But is there really such a great need to pit the practical aspect against the theoretical aspect? It is of course very Aristotelian to consider abstract intellectual endeavors as higher than or superior to the common concerns of particular cases, but that does not mean we should dismiss practical claims as non-substantial.

Aristotle often warns about “the many” and their vulgar, common opinions yet he almost always starts his discussions with them. The first chapter of Book VIII, for example, is entitled Common Beliefs and Questions. He goes on to say “but in poverty also, and in the other misfortunes, people think friends are the only refuge” (1155a12). We have heard many philosophers scorn “fair-weather” friends this semester, including Seneca, who described how such a friendship would break down as easily as it started up: “The beginning and the end [of a friendship] cannot but harmonize. He who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays” (121). In any case, a constructive account of friendship must take common public opinion for what it is. What we do not realize is that often these opinions are so ingrained in us that we take them for granted. Perhaps this is why Kristjansson thought that denying the possibility of parent-child friendship was “counter-intuitive” to some. After all, Aristotle did cite human beings as the species most inclined out of all others to have a “natural friendship” with one another, especially the parent and child (1155a20).

As he continues, Kristjansson explains that the great majority of contemporary philosophical voices involve some aspect of Aristotle’s account of friendship either explicitly or implicitly (250). I found this to be very true as the themes of virtue, community, justice, and equality (to name a few) resurfaced time and time again. He then begins to recite Aristotle’s account, starting with the distinction of three types of friendship: (1) friendship for pleasure (2) friendship for utility (3) and the friendship of virtue. Kristjansson characterizes the third as the only “complete” friendship, stating that in this kind, “friends love one another because of their respective virtuous characters and wish good for one another, each for the other’s sake” (250). He also says they are the most “stable” and “enduring” type of friendships which are, “to be sure, instrumentally and extrinsically valuable in many ways.”

Kristjansson closes in on his discussion of the friend as another self after he makes the distinction that the friendship for utility and friendship for pleasure are merely friendships by similarity and that this is why they are incomplete in comparison to what he calls character friendship (251). He insists that people in common opinion agree that although we may call certain acquaintances friendships, we all know the difference between someone we casually call a friend and a real friend, that is, a person who is truly deserving of the title. There are people who are friends to others and there are people who are friends of others. Here he offers an anecdote: “my neighbor, the electrician, was a real friend to me when the electricity went off in my flat; but although I hold him dear for that, he is not, therefore, necessarily a friend of mine” (251). The person who is a friend of someone else is the kind of person who is another self.

Kristjansson further makes his case of the friend as another self in an important passage where he combines his idea of the privileged parent-child relationship and his theory of moral (character) development. According to him, all identities of the self are gradually formed in late childhood (in general, children start thinking in complex terms of justice and fairness somewhere between the ages of 8 and 12). Hence the moral self and the social self arise together and are inseparable from the start. Furthermore, he argues that this formation of identity does not necessarily impair the child’s ability to become autonomous in regard to other people who have helped form their identity:

“It is only by taking the role of the other (in particular, at the beginning, the role of the parent) that the child’s self acquires its reflexive quality and attains self-consciousness. Our lives as human beings are, by necessity, intertwined…if my sense of myself requires me to seek recognition from others, and my social existence and social relations are essential rather than contingent parts of my personhood, it is unreasonable to insist that because someone else has helped me shape my identity, I cannot be fully autonomous with regard to that person” (255).

The self, then, is only defined by comparison to the other just as the other is only defined in comparison to the self. The two are like reflections of one another, mirror images that are complementary and not merely the exact same thing. In friendship, the self and the other both have their own intrinsic value but they appreciate what each brings to bear because they are equal in virtue. Being equal in virtue, however, does not mean that two people have the exact same kinds of virtue. A virtuous person with a correct desire of the good will recognize both what he has and what he lacks so that he will understand that the virtue of another person, his friend, is also desirable in itself.

In chapter four of Book IX, Aristotle discusses what he means by self love and how it is an important part of friendship. He calls “the defining features of friendship that are found in friendships to one’s neighbors (others) would seem to be derived from features of friendship toward oneself. For a friend is taken to be someone who wishes and does goods or apparent goods to his friend for friends own sake” (1166a). The same can be said of how the person who is a friend treats himself. He wants to be virtuous and achieve great things, so he is kind to himself and wishes goods to himself for his own sake. The virtuous person finds pleasure in his own company because he finds himself not only tolerable but also pleasant in himself. Thus the decent person “is related to his friend as he is to himself, since the friend is another himself” (1166a30).

Kristjansson interprets Aristotle’s argument to mean that the virtues of self-love and love of friends develop at the same time and are inseparable: “It is not as if we first learn to love ourselves and then incorporate others under the same umbrella; rather the capacity to love ourselves and the capacity to love others (family members, friends) arise together ‘in the same way as he is related to himself, since a friend is another self’” (256). Moreover, according to Aristotle, “if someone is always eager above all to do just or temperate actions or any other actions in accord with the virtues, and in general always gains for himself what is fine, no one will call him a self-lover (in the morally shameful manner) or blame him for it” (1168b25-27). This is because friendship with oneself is an outpouring of virtue in the same way that friendship with another self is an outpouring of virtue. Self-love is not selfish if a person is virtuous, since he will go to great lengths for the sake of another self just as he does for himself.

Kristjansson concludes his article by stating that Kupfer’s claim (parents and children cannot be friends because children are “incapable of full-blown friendships, even when the children have reached adulthood,” 253) did not live up to its goal. It failed to prove that parents and children are completely unable to form anything that resembles a “true” or “real” friendship because his structural and moral arguments were too weak—his points did not hold together very tightly. For example, his claim that inequality based on the superiority of parents to children was not entirely refuted by Aristotle, who “states explicitly that within each of the three types of friendship are some that rest on equality and others superiority” (254). In the end, Kupfer’s argument produced an “overly restrictive conception of friendship…that did not bar parent-child friendships for moral reasons, as it is commonly taken to do” (263).

Ultimately, I agree with Aristotle’s account of friendship more thoroughly than any other philosopher we have studied. As a consciously reciprocated goodwill and love of another, friendship should be seen as self looking in on itself, virtue for the end of virtue. Friendship is the “highest external good” because it does not praise the accidental or coincidental qualities in man but instead fosters and nurtures virtuous behaviors in the self and in the other. Two people who posses what Kristjansson refers to as the “character virtue,” Aristotle’s most complete and most desirable type of friendship, posses one another fully and most intimately. A true friend is a friend of someone else’s instead of a friend to someone else. A real friend treats his other as the treats himself, for such a person is a self that has grown with and alongside another to the extent that the two have become indistinguishable.

I agree with Kristjansson that the role of parents is crucial in the moral development of children, and I wonder if the successes or failures of the parent-child relationships set the stage for the child’s future adult relationships. But proving the viability of this kind of relationship in Aristotle’s account was not my focus. The purpose of Kristjansson’s article was to bring a new voice to the discussion of friendship in regard to the self. Kristjansson’s argument was valuable because his interpretation of Aristotle’s account showed how the self is defined by and defines the other. He took this a step further by claiming that the concepts of self-love and love of others arise in the individual at the same time so that they are indistinguishable from one another. He emphasized the parent-child relationship because it is in this relationship primarily that we first form the idea of the self and the idea of the other as well as the concept of love, justice, and equality.

Kristjansson cited that Aristotle gave more space to his discussion of friendship than any other particular intellectual or moral virtue in the Nicomachean Ethics (251). As such, the significance of friendship in our lives can never be too greatly praised or exaggerated. Out of every account, Aristotle’s phrase “a friend is another self” best describes the condition created in the unity of two virtuous individuals. We can say that someone is another self to the extent that we love this person like we love ourselves. Friendship is a model for itself without comparison, an engagement of the self in the world, and a great outpouring of virtue. As Emerson explained, “[he] who hears me, who understands me, becomes mine—a possession for all time” (221). We transform the opposition of the self and the other in friendship for when we are friends with another, “the not mine is mine” (219).

The Question of Being

This is a final paper I wrote for my Philosophy of Being course in college. Old papers can be embarrassing but I think this one isn’t too bad. There is definitely a bit of philosophical jargon in it but I think it’s still comprehensible if you are new to philosophy. Let me know what you think.

The Question of Being (May 3, 2011)

“Silence accompanies the most significant expressions of happiness and unhappiness: those in love understand one another best when silent, while the most heated and impassioned speech at a graveside touches only outsiders, but seems cold and inconsequential to the widow and children of the deceased” (Anton Chekhov, Enemies 1887).

            It is human beings among all forms of life, and as far as we understand the world, for whom the question of Being is most engaging. Humans as teleological, social, and political beings stand on the edge of this question as if they stood on the edge of a gaping, mysterious void. No one is sure how deep it is, how dark it is, or where it leads. Yet eventually, we all find that we are a part of this void. We shift around uncomfortably and toss our hands wildly from side to side in an effort to grasp the thing nearest to us. Because we lack sight in the abyss, we convince ourselves that the effort is futile, and in a gesture of bewilderment, we simply shrug our shoulders and blow out a heavy sigh. This is our premature resignation of defeat, for although the world still turns, the soft rays of light that peek in on us every so often fall upon down-cast eyes, and the sounds of the world fall upon ears made deaf by years of desensitization.

The question of Being is the most fundamental question one can ask, for surely to ask any other question prior to it, we would be assuming a great deal about the nature of that which we speak. For example, one might compare this to asking a congenitally blind person his favorite color. Since he has no experience of color, he will not be able to relate to the question, and his understanding will only go as far as to wonder what the meaning of color is. Although this is an extreme analogy, it is intended to demonstrate the absurdity of our backwards reasoning. It is not uncommon for a person who has little to no knowledge or experience of a subject to engage in discussion of it or to ask another person about it. In fact, we humans do this on a daily basis. What does this imply about us, the insatiably curious beings who display some of the most peculiar behaviors of any life form?

It is an audacious desire to touch the very threads of meaning and existence, and to ask what can be fashioned of them. Even then, we find that only a particular type of individual is well suited for examining such questions. By common societal standards, the individual must be able to communicate intelligibly in a human language, including comprehensive speaking, reading, writing and receptive hearing. In certain cases, however, some skills may be compensated by others. These abilities are thought to be indicators of reasoning, the pinnacle of Western philosophy. If one possesses a masterful, enticing skill of reasoning through language (like that of the sophist), he is likely to persuade even the staunchest of skeptics.

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle claims that Being is necessarily “metaphysical,” literally meaning that it is beyond physics, the study of material substance; Metaphysics is the inquiry into first principles (1029a28-31). His discussion not only proposes that the question of Being itself is metaphysical in nature, but also makes excessive attempts to draw out the truth of Being. He does this through elaborate theoretical arguments based on semantics and thought experiments, although he had already expressed doubt about the human capacity to understand even the slightest portion of such an abstract concept.

Nevertheless, Aristotle develops his argument into a war of the material versus the form. Both are persuasive opponents which can easily trick a person into favoring their side, but Aristotle posits that Being is instead the dynamic combination of the two known as “substance.” He specifically addresses substance in book VII, providing arguments claiming that substance is matter and that substance is not matter. He states that “when everything else is removed, clearly nothing but matter remains,” indicating that the two are one and the same, whereas he insists that “separability and individuality belong especially to substance,” making a distinction between the two (1029a14, 27). He appears to support the distinction between matter and substance further through his discussion of composites and generation. His example of the bronze sphere (a composite of bronze and sphere) illustrates that before the object existed in actuality, it existed as a potential substance in the mind of the artisan who produced it (1034b10-15).

The concept of mind in Aristotle’s discussion of Being is limited based on what one defines as “mind.” If by “mind” one means “intelligibility” (indicating the use of applied reason) then perhaps the form or essence of a thing are most pertinent to the question of Being, for “learning is always acquired in this way, by advancing through what is less intelligible by nature to what is more so” (1029b5-7). What one readily perceives is the material through sight. The essence of a thing, however, is knowable only when one has “knowledge of the individual” (1031b21-22).

As a conclusion to the Metaphysics, Aristotle argues the point of Being in the sense of truth: “truth and falsity are as follows: contact and assertion are truth (for assertion is not the same as affirmation), and ignorance is non-contact” (1051b24-26). This statement presents a unique challenge to the question of Being, as it responds in a manner similar to Heidegger’s response (one may certainly interject that it is Heidegger’s account which resembles Aristotle’s). Both cite a particularly critical connection between Being through beings and the observer or [in Heidegger’s language,] the Dasein, yet fail to clarify whether this connection is an experiential, sensible (and therefore material or physical) state or an automatic, transcendent state of reconciliation between the two. According to them, the answer once again seems to lie somewhere in the middle, a moderation stranded from certainty and absoluteness.

Furthermore, Aristotle describes that which is true as a particular unity (the “what-it-was-to-be”), and of truth itself, he says “truth means to think these objects, and there is no falsity or deception, but only ignorance- not however, ignorance such as blindness is; for blindness is like a total absence of the power of thinking” (1051b34-1052a3). But how should we say that the blind cannot think and that they are inferior to the human ideal merely because we find the metaphor of the “mind’s eye” clever? Aristotle himself criticized the early philosophers for having poeticized their accounts, thus deifying and shrouding the origin of truth (982b13-15, 27-32).

Heidegger’s approach to the question of Being begins with a question of its own: why is there Being at all instead of nothing or non-Being? In a manner similar to Plato’s discussion of the alphabet of Being in The Sophist (of which Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics is a response), Heidegger examines the role and limitation of linguistic structures as the fundamental building blocks of this discourse. He insists that our language expresses and shapes what we think and that this influence is inseparable (rather crucial, in fact) from the questions we ask [42]. He radically deviates from Plato’s approach, however, since he would not consider the paradigm of the fisherman as an adequate means of transition into genuine questioning. He prefers to tackle the question of Being as it would naturally unfold according to the observer.

If one assumes that the world is, then one will ask how it “is” and why it “is.” Heidegger claims that it is through polemos (confrontation) that the world first comes into Being. He concludes that only under certain circumstances can something reveal itself as a being. Although it first comes to be through polemos, a being does not cease to be after polemos has ended. It is instead hidden in a sort of transitory state, and one considers it as a “finding” or an “object” rather than a being [48]. It appears then, that such a thing is never guaranteed to become or to always be considered as a being since it may only experience polemos for a limited time or even not at all. When it does come about, polemos is described as a “struggle” or “strife” [47, 48]. Heidegger cites a passage from Heraclitus to develop this idea, offering his interpretation of originary struggle, a concept he believed Heraclitus hinted at. Originary struggle is a coming to be of an unfolding being’s potentialities [47]. It makes opposition possible, and because of this, the world is allowed to come to be.

The originary force of polemos begins with the unfolding and emergence of the thing when the right conditions are met; this is when phusis “comes to a stand in what comes to presence” [47]. The foremost condition is the meeting of a natural force and an intelligent force. Each potential being (the natural force) requires the attention of a Dasein (the intelligent force), for it is the initial participation of the Dasein which coaxes the thing out of concealment and the interaction of the two which sustains Being itself [47].

Heidegger’s theory appears to give primacy to the Dasein since it must recognize a thing, interpret it, and decide whether to reach out to it. The Dasein’s action [or inaction] ultimately determines the possibility of Being (although once a being has revealed itself, the Dasein cannot change it [22]), whereas the potential being only needs to make itself accessible to the curiosity of the Dasein [63]. This suggests that the Dasein holds a far greater power and sway in the emergence of Being.

Aristotle, Heidegger, and Plato provide a vastly comprehensive survey of the question of Being, the nature of ‘that which is’ and the complications that it presents. Although they may overwhelm and confuse the reader as often as they enlighten him, each generally agrees that Being is not an eternal, static state that can be bound by a single, universal definition. In an effort to avoid taking a stand in favor of one definition or another, for fear that this choice might be wrong, many philosophers, statesmen, and sophists alike merely conclude their inquiry in a sweeping circumlocution of events. For human beings, the question of Being is the single most fundamental question we can ask because the world indeed pushes back when we apply pressure to it.

A great multitude of people attribute the world’s Being as the result of a celestial, divine force acting on (or interfering with) our daily lives. Human beings among all known beings are the only individuals with such creative, self-deluding, and inquisitive tendencies as to make gods of ourselves. By our own decision and at our own risk, we dive into the completely unknown. When we observe other beings, a shocking perplexity comes over us, and subsequently, we are inclined to examine them. Within our minds we artfully create and destroy as we please. Our reality melts into subjectivity the moment we ignore the world and turn into ourselves for a simple, pre-fabricated ideology dictated by society.

At the bottom of the abyss, it becomes obvious that we have weaved a most inconsistent fable from the threads of the world. Now we are finally alone to ourselves. Yet it is only through this state of isolation that we arrive at an indifference to our prejudice since, after all, we have lost ourselves in total aporia. Only from that moment forward can we begin to truly reflect on Being, for our inquiry reveals far more about us than it does of anything else. In this deepest, blackest void we startle at the bright beams of light that flicker in above our heads and the louder, bolder thumps of noise that reach us. To be awakened to the world’s life we must first take a stand, no matter what it may be. Our first step is always the precedent to our own unfolding being.

Meditation I.

A collection of short texts, sometimes poetry, that give you cause for pause to wonder upon their meaning.

‘–Night is drawing nigh–‘

For all that has been–Thanks!

To all that shall be–Yes!

Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings

This text is from a book I have yet to finish. Markings is certainly is not light reading but its verses are often enlightening. I find Mr. Hammarskjöld to be a bit severe at times but I appreciate his stern morality. His dedication to self-reflection and self-discipline are inspiring. Markings is Nietzschean in its formatting and it makes for a quick read in that aspect. Small verses and proportional maxims are pleasant to the reading eyes which yearn for some stopping point.

Verse 8 The Highest Good

The highest good is like water,

nourishing life effortlessly,

flowing without prejudice

to the lowliest places.

It springs from all

who nourish their community

with a benevolent heart as deep as an abyss

who are incapable of lies and injustices,

who are rooted in the earth,

and whose natural rhythms of action

play midwife to the highest good

of each pregnant moment.

Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, Translated with commentary by Ralph Alan Dale

The Tao is hands-down one of my favorite texts of all. I turn to it when my life feels uncontrollable. I turn to it when I am fulfilled. It has wisdom for every stage and every emotion of life. I’m not good at meditation at all– it takes practice and concentration, but I’ve found that meditating on The Tao comes naturally.

As goofy as it sounds I like to meditate in the bathtub. Close yourself in and draw a warm bath. Use candlelight or an indirect light source to create some calmness in your room. Let the water wash over you and clear your mind. Read your verse slowly out loud. Concentrate on your breathing. Let everything else melt away. All that is left is you and the text.

Heike’s Window at Nightfall, from Versailles Cemetery

Perhaps the dead can see in Heike’s window

and, after dark at dinnertime, sit

upon their stones in rows mesmerized

as at a picture show, watching

through the narrow glass, slivers

of lives: Irwin’s arm reaching

a jug of tea; Harck’s boy arm extending

a cup that water fills; Heike

capping berries at the sink, then lifting out

the bread the toaster raises. These gestures

fascinate the dead who watch that glass

as unforgiving and as hard as molten sands

they’ve crossed. On my own path

falls the light from Heike’s window,

a flattened, grave-shaped shining

I step into.

Jane Gentry Vance, A Garden in Kentucky collection

Reading this poem I can hear her voice. I don’t know how to explain it. When she speaks it’s like I’m home. You can learn more about her life and listen to her read another one of her poems, Night Beasts in the Backyard.

Why you should spend time at the cemetery.

How do you imagine the cemetery in your mind? Is it that spooky, hokey graveyard like in Scooby Doo? Is it a bleak plot of land that calls to your morbid curiosity? Is it somewhere you have always avoided? Or is it a destination on a beautiful summer’s day? A park for the beloved and a home to birds, rabbits, and geese? Maybe you have a recently lost loved one there. Or maybe you have no connection at all.

If you have visited a cemetery before, think about what impression it gave you. Cemeteries make most people’s imaginations run wild. They can be overwhelming. So many dead people…but you can’t really see them…But you know they’re there! Sneaky…

There is nothing wrong with being curious about the dead. Most people could probably benefit from exploring this curiosity in a healthy way. One such way is to visit your local cemetery. Here’s my step-by-step:

  • Google cemeteries in your city or town.
  • Choose one to visit. If there’s only one that’s easy. If there’s more than one you can use any method to choose it. There are apparently 93 cemeteries (including horse cemeteries) in my city. I had no idea. Maybe choose the closest one to you for convenience. Maybe choose the one you’ve heard people talk about. Maybe just point and decide.
  • Make sure you know the hours of operation.
  • Plan a good day to visit. You generally don’t have to take the entire day off to make this sort of visit but it depends on your city. When I visit my cemetery of choice I usually plan for 1-2 hours. Consider if you have appointments, meetings, or class that day. Go on a day with good weather (if you have the luxury). If you’re not super excited at the thought of visiting a cemetery maybe don’t schedule your date night afterwards…
  • Prepare for your trip. I like to bring my purse, a bottle of water, and maybe a light snack if I’m staying long. I also sometimes bring a blanket to put on the ground and sit on in the sun. Charge your phone. General short trip stuff. If you’re really into the cemetery check online and see who’s buried there. Maybe there are tombs of interest.

At the cemetery. If you are driving proceed with caution. Most cemeteries have speed limits posted near the gate. In general, do not exceed 10-15 mph but always adhere to postings. Watch for pedestrians!

Get a map near the main office (if there is one) or consult the cemetery directory. Take a photo of it to reference later. Larger cemeteries may have painted lines indicating main roads. Stick to these for your first trip and keep it simple. Some cemeteries can turn into mazes.

Always remember to be respectful. While many cemeteries are like parks you are expected not to be loud and rowdy. It is best to leave your pets at home. If you have trash dispose of it properly or take it back to your car. It is generally fine to explore and relax but do not disturb any services you may come across.

Some people say you should never walk over a grave. This is up to your judgement. I find it nearly impossible to walk at all in my local cemetery if I have to tiptoe around any potential grave soil. Headstones are obvious but overgrown grass isn’t. I am not saying, of course, that you shouldn’t watch where you step. Please be cautious. I don’t think there is anything wrong with walking up to a stone to view it or read its inscription. After all, why have something written if you don’t want someone to read it? Take special care not to disturb any ornamentation or flowers left on stones. I actually like to fix items that have blown over. Flags that have drifted off their spot, for example. These are nice things you can do to leave the space nicer than when you arrived.

One thing I have not mentioned that is very important is culture. If you have read this far into the article I assume you aren’t too freaked out and may be considering a cemetery visit. Some cultures believe that even talking about death invites it. I am surely not one to judge but obviously I have different views. I think that we can start talking about death and the dead a little differently. To be frank I don’t find it all doom and gloom. Not any more. Maybe I’m privileged. Maybe I’m naïve (but I’m doubting this part). Visiting a cemetery is a brave act and it is one way we can confront death. If you’re at a loss for what to do when you get there I’ve got you covered.

*Things to do at the cemetery:

  • Take a walk
  • Read a book
  • Find a famous grave
  • Listen to music through your headphones
  • Watch the wildlife
  • Admire new names on tombstones
  • Wonder why you didn’t do this sooner
  • Take pictures of flowers
  • Search for old Aunt Marilyn
  • And much more

*Always refer to cemetery regulations and postings.

Let me know how you felt after your visit.