On Philosophy

Painting by Mark Tansey: Recourse (2011)

Plato somewhere compares philosophy to a raft on which a shipwrecked sailor may perhaps reach home. Never was a simile more apt. Every man has his raft, which is generally large enough only for one. It is made up of things snatched from his cabin – a life preserver or two of psalm, proverb or fable; some planks held together by the oddest rope-ends of experience; and the whole shaky craft requires constant attention. How absurd, then, is it to think that any formal philosophy is possible – when the rag or old curtain that serves one man for a waistcoat is the next man’s prayer-mat! To try to make a raft for one’s neighbor, or try to get on to someone else’s raft, these seem to be the besetting sins of philosophy and religion.

The raft itself is an illusion. We do not either make or possess our raft. We are not able to seize it or explain it, cannot summon it at will. It comes and goes like a phantom.

John Jay Chapman
Quoted in Gore Vidal’s The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000

Painting by Mark Tansey: Recourse (2011)

Related: Make Your Own Bible

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6 thoughts on “On Philosophy

    • Shucks, you’ll be fine. I like what Alan Watts says:

      Don’t cling to anything of the spirit. Don’t cling to the water, because the more you grab it the faster it will slip through your fingers. Don’t cling to your breath, you’ll get purple in the face and suffocate. You have to let your breath out. That’s the act of faith, to breathe out, and it will come back. The Buddhist word nirvana actually means to breathe out: letting go is the fundamental attitude of faith.

  1. Nice blog. Anyone who squares Gore Vidal with LF Céline is a friend of mine. However, it may not go the other way because I take issue with the above quote by John Jay Chapman lifted from Vidal’s book of essays. In itself, it’s a-okay. And maybe within a sophisticated mono-racial culture with a common tradition it is also okay. But within the mixed-up USA today, it is extremely problematic.

    I could use the argument against it that is used against anarchists and libertarians. Instead, I’ll mention an ongoing writers’ workshop in Philly where nobody had the same standards, structure, hermanuetics, values, referents and blah, blah, blah. It was awful! Writers talked past each other, like 20 individual dilletantes speaking their own dialect of English. Every subsequent meeting was a parody an inaugural meeting between independents where the 1st Order of the Day was to establish a common language for business. I didn’t mind the repitition. I enjoyed the pathos, comedy and vertigo. Then a tall friend who was a graduate of an MFA program in writing, yanked me out of the loop.

    I love Vidal. He’s 10,000 times smarter than I am. But I believe in a common catechism and, I suspect that at the level of a common cultural understanding, Gore Vidal did too. He was very proud of his southern roots and patrician blood-lines. Buddha himself was a blue-blood. He wasn’t spontaneously generated. Like Vidal, he was the product of high-breeding and equally inherited tradition.

    That’s my rant for today. You have an equlibrium that I lack. Congratulations! Very nice blog.

  2. Of course I’ve read it. I read it just now!

    And it is a hoot. It reminds me of my uncle who worked in the aero-space industry. He wouldn’t sit next to the domesticated men in the cafeteria. He hated the small-talk about lawnmowers and mortgages. He sat with the bad boys: grown men who teased the law as they gambled, whored and subverted superiors.

    He had a high-IQ but also a chip on his shoulder. Consequently, he never developed intellectually. So he lacked the art of the scrimmage that Hazlitt enjoyed in French Women and
    learned writers. Because he ran too rich with the madness in veins, he died young. It was a huge loss because, had he lived to be an old paternal figure, he could’ve developed his own art of rhetoric and spoken with some detachment. Like a man looking back on his life’s mission with little need for validation.

    It’s the need for validation that’s boring. Like the need to be the center of attention. Like the need to be the smartest guy in the room. Hazlitt covers the map in his essay. He does it like a gentleman, with a merciless eye and a soft touch.

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