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)

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