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

Waiting for the Barbarians

Homeland Security Advisory System: United States of America, 2002

– What are we waiting for, gathered in the agora?

The barbarians are arriving today.

– Why is nothing happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit making no laws?

Because the barbarians are arriving today.
What laws can the senators make now?
When the barbarians come, they will make laws.

– Why did our emperor wake up so early,
and, in the city’s grandest gate, sit in state
on his throne, wearing his crown?

Because the barbarians are arriving today,
and the emperor is waiting to receive
their leader. In fact, he prepared
a parchment to give them, where
he wrote down many titles and names.

– Why did our two consuls and the praetors
come out today in their crimson embroidered togas;
why did they don bracelets with so many amethysts
and rings resplendent with glittering emeralds;
why do they hold precious staffs today,
beautifully wrought in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are arriving today,
and such things dazzle barbarians.

– Why don’t the worthy orators come as usual
to deliver their speeches and say their piece?

Because the barbarians are arriving today
and they are bored by eloquence and harangues.

– Why should this anxiety and confusion
suddenly begin. (How serious faces have become.)
Why have the streets and squares emptied so quickly,
and why has everyone returned home so pensive?

Because night’s fallen and the barbarians have not arrived.
And some people came from the border
and they say the barbarians no longer exist.

Now what will become of us without barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution.

C.P. Cavafy (1904)
Collected Poems

Illustration: Homeland Security Advisory System, United States of America, 2002

Be Angry at the Sun

That public men publish falsehoods
Is nothing new. That America must accept
Like the historical republics corruption and empire
Has been known for years.

Be angry at the sun for setting
If these things anger you. Watch the wheel slope and turn,
They are all bound on the wheel, these people, those warriors.
This republic, Europe, Asia.

Observe them gesticulating,
Observe them going down. The gang serves lies, the passionate
Man plays his part; the cold passion for truth
Hunts in no pack.

You are not Catullus, you know,
To lampoon these crude sketches of Caesar. You are far
From Dante’s feet, but even farther from his dirty
Political hatreds.

Let boys want pleasure, and men
Struggle for power, and women perhaps for fame,
And the servile to serve a Leader and the dupes to be duped.
Yours is not theirs.

Robinson Jeffers
Be Angry at the Sun (1941)
Robinson Jeffers: Collected Poems

On the End of the World

The History of Earth as a Clock

The day the world ends, no one will be there, just as no one was there when it began. This is a scandal. Such a scandal for the human race that it is indeed capable collectively, out of spite, of hastening the end of the world by all means just so it can enjoy the show.

Jean Baudrillard, 1987

On Posterity

Posterity of Butterflies

Those who talk about the future are scoundrels. It is the present that matters. To evoke one’s posterity is to make a speech to maggots.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Journey to the End of the Night (1932)

Painting by Mihai Criste: Posterity of Butterflies (2010)

The Unbearable Lightness of War

U.S. Troops Mistakenly Kill Iraqi Civilians

Americans need to remember that war is the worst thing in the world. War is hell. War is this blood-spattered little girl screaming because her parents have just been shot dead by mistake at a checkpoint. War represents the complete defeat of the human spirit. Wars must never be fought unless absolutely necessary. Never. Never.

We need to remember this. For America’s wars have become weightless. They are fought by other people’s children, or by mercenaries, or by functionaries sitting inside mountains pushing buttons that launch missiles. They are no longer real. The way the Iraq War is ending, not with a bang but a barely audible whimper, is the way we make war now. The line between war and peace has disappeared. We are in a permanent state of quasi-war.

This is spiritually deadening. It is also dangerous. The unbearable lightness of war allows ideologues and fools to kill casually in our national name, without anyone paying attention. Since Iraq never happened, another Iraq is possible. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Gary Kamiya
What if They Ended a War and Nobody Cared?
Salon, 16 December 2011

Photo by Chris Hondros (1970-2011): TAL AFAR, IRAQ – JANUARY 18, 2005:  An Iraqi girl screams after her parents were killed when U.S. Soldiers with the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 25th Infantry Division out of Ft. Lewis, Washington, fired on their car when it failed to stop and came toward soldiers, despite warning shots, during a dusk patrol January 18, 2005 in Tal Afar, Iraq. The car held an Iraqi family of which the mother and father were killed. According to the U.S. Army, six children in the in the car survived, one with a non-life threatening flesh wound. U.S. military said they are is investigating the incident.