Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Morning, noon, night

Morbid brother that I am, this TNR book review caught my eye. 
'To philosophize is to learn to die": seven words, and an epoch in Western thought. According to Plato in the Phaedo, one of the inextinguishable monuments that he erected to his martyred teacher, Socrates believed that philosophy was a way of "practicing dying." Cicero, who set himself the task of making philosophy speak Latin, translated "practice" not with meditatio but commentatio--meaning "careful preparation," from which we get our own "commentary" or "study." Study, he implies, takes us outside ourselves, beyond our bodily needs, and thus helps us to transcend our physical finitude.

Yet there is also, in Cicero's momentous linguistic decision, the implication that what one studies, as well as that one studies, prepares us while alive to meet our eventual fate. Philosophy can teach endurance, forbearance, and perspective amid both joy and catastrophe. Those who live in fear of death also live in fear of pain, in fear of danger, in fear of the new; but those who accept the reality of death are freed from all these fetters.
I can't comment on the substance and conclusions of the piece -- I'm only about a third of the way in, though I'm enjoying it so far -- but I did want to say something about a comment appended to it that I've been chuckling about for the last hour or so. In the finest Internet tradition, a Smart Guy Explains It All To Us:
Does not Professor Miller [author of the review] understand the basic truth that living and dying are part of each other? The banality of his conclusion amazes me. To live well must include dying; to die well includes the appropriate conclusion to a meaningful life. What is mysterious about that?
Thank you, Harold J. Wilson, sage of the age. Now, this piece may well ultimately come to a banal conclusion -- and Wilson's comment, clearly, is more right than wrong in its substance. But sweet Jesus, what that "basic truth" of the unity of death and life elides. At risk of making another banal conclusion, let me quote the old saw that there's knowing, and there's knowing. How to make leap between the two -- with faith, with reason, with any means available to you -- now that's a freakin' mystery.


Gary Kowalski said...

Hi Kevin,

I've been reading a few of your blogs. You've quite a way with words, and a talent for piercing to the heart of the matter. I have a blog, too, and like your posts, mine get very few comments. Yours are better than mine, though. Very personal and insightful.

You are obviously trying to travel this road as consciously and creatively as possible, and have some desire to share your feelings and observations with others along the way.

I don't know how public you want to be about your illness. But if at some point you wanted to share any of your reflections on living with a life-threatening illness in church--on a Sunday morning, or in another forum, I'd be happy to talk with you about it.

Maybe the blog is intended to be primarily a private collection of thoughts. But if making it public has any appeal, let me know.

You are struggling with experiences that one day touch all of us, and doing so with much eloquence and grace.

Gary Kowalski

Gary Kowalski

SG said...

Thanks for weighing in, Gary. I really appreciate it. I've thought about turning comments off since I don't generate many, but my hope is that if I keep on doing this I will eventually attract enough readers to generate some interesting exchanges. Of course, since less than 1 percent of the readers here comment, this would require quite an increase.