Picking up Shards & Pieces of Philosophy

Dieser alte Heilige hat in seinem Walde noch nichts davon gehört, dass Gott tot ist” (1)

The day I learned about the end of philosophy

The day's work had been done, supper eaten, dishes washed, current affairs section in the paper diligently read :  time to withdraw into more congenial spheres. Ensconced on the sofa, I was absent-mindedly perusing the paper's cultural pages, quite absorbed in the music that was playing (savouring the consonance of a growling cello and a dainty piano melody (2)).   But, hey, this looked like an interesting article – something about Erasmus and philosophy?

Pushing up my glasses on my nose, I expectantly focused on the article : « The Erasmus university of Rotterdam is to abolish its faculty of philosophy ».  Erasmus abolishing philosophy… ?!(3) So that's where we have come to, on this bleak december day in 2014?

We have of course witnessed the demise of quite some traditions in the West. We all have long heard that God is dead, but frankly, I hadn't yet fully realised that philosophy, too, apparently, is dead.

Philosophy Lives On! (at the French second hand bookshop)

Philosophy’s stubborn afterlife in the 20th Century may have fooled me.  Too much browsing of French second hand bookshops perhaps: all those shelves & shelves of mass-published books initiating humble lovers of wisdom in the higher realms of philosophy.  It was there that I picked up a small booklet from the “philosophes” series, just a pocket, but all the same carefully bound and designed: “ Simone Weil - an introduction to her life and works by Marie-Magdeleine Davy”.  

The name Weil does ring a bell –  and also rouses suspicion: wasn’t there a mystical streak to Weil’s  work,  which, by contemporary standards,  would disqualify her as a source of wisdom?

Reading the introduction I am startled how swiftly I come under the spell of this text – how surprisingly well I still can relate to its tone and vocabulary.  It’s a language of attention and contemplation, of thoughtful dwelling (4) . Here one still dares to speak without irony of the “unshaken sense of beauty and harmony relegated to us by the ancient Greeks”. 

Simone Weil is described as a thinker with a wide ranging erudition spanning antique Greek philosophy, early Christian thought, classical Indian texts and mathematics. (5)
Weil seems quite disabused about the fate of philosophy – she reflects on how philosophy seems devoid of progress and utterly lacks the concrete deliverables of science, the handmaiden of technology - humorously concluding:  
 Today’s fashion is progress, evolution. But progress is even more than a mere fashion, it has  become a serious constraint.  If the general public knew that philosophy is not likely to progress, they would probably ill suffer philosophy as part of public expenditures. It’s not in the spirit of our times to budget for that which is eternal”  (6) 

Wistful sympathy for echoes of an age long past

As fascinating as the excerpts from Weil’s philosophy are, I dwell longest on the two opening pages of the little booklet. Wistfully wondering what touches me most – the title page (with that reverent subtitle “her life, her work, a presentation of her philosophy”, and with that emblematic Greek image of a driver in a chariot spurring on four horses) or the left page with an overview of the works of Marie-Madeleine Davy, the all but forgotten author (7) of this booklet.

It’s a breath-taking enumeration, a summa of medieval Christian erudition:  A treatise of the solitary life”, “Two treatises on the love of God”, ”Commentary  on the Song of Songs”,   
I feel a sense of awe and wonder, reading these titles – mesmerized by echoes coming from so  far away – dazzled by these fragments of a civilisation forever (?) lost.

The same kind of dizzying sense of awe which I felt when standing on a hill in Rome, early in the morning, looking out over the deserted, near 2.000 years old ruins of the Foro Romano.

Notes, Shards & Pieces

(1) Nietzsche - Also sprach Zarathustra – “ This old saint in his forest has not yet heard of it, that God is dead”
(2) Schubert piano trio opus 100
(3) Not profitable because none of the remaining students choose philosophy as a major, but only as a   minor (for which no subsidies are received)

(4) « la faculté d’attention est le but véritable et presque l’unique intérêt des études »

 (5)  Simone Weil (1909-1943)

Weil’s thinking is reportedly permeated by a Greek sense of harmony and proportion but encompasses vary varied sources of wisdom – she exulted in analogies amongst myths and ideas from different civilisations and eras.  Her thinking aimed at a sort of ‘universal understanding’, perhaps last attempted by her beloved Greeks, for whom science, art and philosophy were all related.  (“La science grecque […] était parente de l’art. Or l’art pour les Grecs c’est pouvoir ‘rendre sensible une parenté entre l’esprit humain et l’univers’ “) . She also had an acute sense of suffering, a deep awareness of the unredeemed injustice of suffering – which is where a certain vein of Christian mysticism comes in. “  She considered herself a Christian but was regarded with suspicion by the Catholic establishment since she choose not to be baptized, for fear of joining a collective institution which would bridle her intellectual liberty.   (« ce patriotisme d’Eglise, qui fait dire ‘nous’ , constitue un piège »)

(6) (written some 75 years ago) « La mode aujourd’hui est de progresser, d’évoluer. C’est même quelque chose de plus contraignant qu’une mode. Si le grand public savait que la philosophie n’est pas susceptible de progrès, il souffrirait mal sans doute  qu’elle ait part aux dépenses publiques. Il n’est  pas dans l’esprit de notre époque d’inscrire au budget ce qui est éternel »  

(5bis) It’s not clear how much Weil knew about the full extent of the nazi-horrors, but she was acutely aware of the horrors humankind is capable of in general. She was politically active but proved to be  an uneffective combatant (she did join a republican anarchist unit in the Spanish Civil war, but was too clumsy and  short-sighted to be trusted with a rifle). Of Jewish descent, she had to flee France, after a passage via New York she then emigrated to England, where she worked. She fell ill and died in an English sanatorium in ’43.  
 « Réflexions sur la barbarie (1939) » :
 “ Bien des gens aujourd’hui émus par les horreurs de toute espèce que notre époque apporte avec une profusion accablante […] croient que, par l’effet d’une trop grande puissance technique, ou d’une espèce de décadence morale, ou pour toute autre cause, nous entrons dans une période de plus grande barbarie que les siècles traversées par l’humanité au cours de son histoire. Il n’en est rien. Il suffit, pour s’en convaincre  d’ouvrir n’importe quel texte antique, la Bible, Homère, César, Plutarque. Dans la Bible les massacres se chiffrent généralement par dizaines de millliers. L’extermination totale, en une journée, sans exception de sexe ni d’âge, d’une ville de quarante mille habitants n’est pas, dans les récits de César, quelque chose d’extraordinaire. […] La croyance contraire, si commune à la fin du 19ième siècle et jusqu’en 1914, c’est-à-dire la croyance en une diminution progressive de la barbarie dans l’humanité dite civilisée, n’est, me semble-t-il, pas moins erronée. Et l’illusion en pareille matière est dangereuse, car on ne cherche pas à conjurer ce qu’on croit être en voie d’extinction. […] A cet égard, rien n’est plus dangereux que la foi en une race, en une nation, en une classe sociale, en un parti. Aujourd’hui nous ne pouvons plus avoir dans le progrès la même confiance naïve qu’ont eu nos pères et nos grands-pères ; mais à la barbarie qui ensanglante le monde nous cherchons tous des causes hors du milieu où nous vivons, dans des groupements humains qui nous sont étrangers. Je voudrais proposer de considérer la barbarie comme un caractère permanent et universel de la nature humaine, qui se développe plus ou moins selon que les circonstances lui donnent plus ou moins de jeu »

(7) Marie-Madeleine Davy (1903-1999) 

I never heard of her, but then of course, in retrospect, she was not in tune with the spirit of the times. Writing about medieval philosophy, about Christian spirituality in the 60s? The currently prevailing history of thought obviously chronicles quite another set of milestones and icons for the 60s …. On the web I found her biography and a wonderful photo: a pensive woman  in front of a bookshelf. Web-entries say she travelled a lot, and lived long, ending her life in a house in the country, in the midst of nature, surrounded by nature and books, devoting her final years to thinking and contemplating. 


Anonymous said...

Misschien word ik nog het meest getroffen door je voetnoot over Marie-Madeleine Davy, en de mooie foto. Indrukwekkend!

Swann Ffflaneur said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Swann Ffflaneur said...

ja, die foto vond ik ook echt heel mooi - nu nog meer van haar werk zien te pakken te krijgen ...