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

This Is It

Gore Vidal, 1992

Because there is no cosmic point to the life that each of us perceives on this distant bit of dust at galaxy’s edge, all the more reason for us to maintain in proper balance what we have here. Because there is nothing else. No thing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all.

Gore Vidal
Armageddon? (1987)
Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia

J.P. Sartre: Why I Believe in God

Jean-Paul Sartre

Despite the atheism which was axiomatic for his approach to philosophy and life itself, in an interview with Simone de Beauvoir from 1974, Sartre made the following curious remark:

I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here: and this idea of a creating hand refers to God.

Then again, as a student of mine once said to me during a class I was teaching on Hegel, people say all sorts of things when they are drunk.

Simon Critchley
The Book of Dead Philosophers (2008)

Related: Tatsuya Ishida: Drunk God (2006)

Throw Down Your Dictionaries

Painting by Mark Tansey: Discarding the Frame (1980s)

The horrible lot of an ordinary, normal man whose life is determined by dictionaries of easily understandable words and acts. The acts draw him on, like a fragile vessel rigged out with words and gestures. If the fragile vessel runs aground on the submerged rock of inapprehensibility, it is wrecked, and the sailor drowns. At life’s slightest jolt, ordinary people are deprived of reason. No, madmen know no such dangers. Their brains are more subtle. The ingenuous brain finds impenetrable that which such brains penetrate. There is nothing for it but to be wrecked, and – it is wrecked.

Andrei Bely
Petersburg (1910-13)

Painting by Mark Tansey: Discarding the Frame (1980s)

On the Desire for a Master

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Sadly, it is now almost universally assumed by classical scholars that Pythagoras never existed. It seems that there was a group of people in southern Italy called Pythagoreans who invented a “Founder” for their beliefs who, accordingly, lived and died in a manner consistent with those beliefs. But let’s not allow Pythagoras’ mere non-existence to deter us, as the stories that surround him are so compelling. They are also illustrative of the wider point that disciples of a thinker will often simply invent stories and anecdotes that illustrate the life of the master in whom they want to believe. Perhaps we should be suspicious of this desire for a master.

Simon Critchley
The Book of Dead Philosophers (2008)

Illustration by Saul Steinberg
The Inspector (1973)

Make Your Own Bible

Painting by Auguste Renoir: Reading (c. 1890-95)

Make your own bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Letter to Margaret Fuller, 1849

Painting by Auguste Renoir: Reading (c. 1890-95)