“Courage,” said the Philosopher, “is the prime philosophical virtue” (by which he meant the moral kind) “lacking which all the others become irrelevancies one has no nerve to bring oneself to put into practice.” It is a notion from another time, in accord with which it came to pass that the philosophical cream of my own generation, guided by enlightened self-interest, determined to bring no children into this world. The trouble one saved oneself. The trouble one saved them.
Trouble, of course, there has been. Though after each of our century’s dallies with mass death—reserving those ongoing—sobriety has tended to shame frivolity awhile. Sometimes, it has even seemed as if we were about to embrace that modicum of what the wise once called wisdom, if only to preclude the interlocking disasters of a self-administered extinction or the literal conflagration of the world.
Always, the impulse fades. It fades because the absence of evil does not necessarily mean the presence of good. It fades because we cannot see things as they are, which is a necessary component to doing anything at all.
Perhaps now mere pragmatisms, euphemizing the world into market conditions, whereas one might even with the naked eye make out a transoceanic oil spill, the industrial occultation of rain forests, may well succeed where past mass death has failed. Our cycles of certitude spew their virtual volcanoes of information, less and less about more and more, more and more about less and less, on toward everything you ever wanted to know about nothing but were afraid to ask. One comes actually to prefer one’s universe devoid of the hoax of quality. (It may not occur to us that another well-known name for such a place is Hell.)
Unless one were a poet, say, or a philosopher. They, in their primordial purity of function and meaning, arc as rare as stars in the daytime, though they may occur. Such a one might have been fated to be born in the midst of an Old World’s highest of high hills, where Mozart also had been born, at one of that world’s least propitious modern moments, a little after the Siegfried Line was breached.
Inspired by the example of Dietrich von Hildebrand and of Karol Wojtyla, otherwise known as Pope John Paul II, an admirably unself-regarding personage named Josef Seifert came to found the International Academy for Philosophy in the Principality of Liechtenstein, The term itself would appear provocative, recalling as it does those other two academies—Plato’s, Cosimo’s—of happy memory without which the world could never have hoped to have come into being at all.
This may well have been a nervy thing to try. Though as with that of Athens or of Florence, a family and a fortune stand behind it, Liechtenstein’s princely house is not so well known—yet—as that of Solon or the Medicis. The old prince now deceased displayed a crucial presence of mind, though, in a maddened world, sparing his principality participation in the Third Reich. In contrast to those other world metropolises, most people have barely heard of Liechtenstein, whose obscurity behind mountains at the heart of a Europe currently obsessed with its own materialist/hedonist abandon may prove an asset whose value has yet to mature. It is the academy’s premise that considerably less is right with the emerging human picture than most are willing to consider. The academy exists not to “study” philosophy (one may do that there, of course) but to resurrect it. At which point one may well ask whether such a thing were even possible; if possible, advisable; if advisable, desirable. That would be to begin, as Plato himself said all philosophy must, in wonder.
Seifert’s first words to me were about my own New World (Dallas, as it happened, where I have never been). He was being introduced to a local political figure who asked him, in that singular way of our countrymen, not “What do you do?” but “What do you do?” and to which he replied, not “I write books” nor “I teach at the university,” though he did both, but—”I am a philosopher.” That was what he knew himself to be.
“A . . . ? A . . . ? What?” (It is hard to know whether the public figure’s response was a ploy.) “A phuh . . . la . . . suh . . . phuh . . . ? Hey! Do you realize what that means? That means . . . that the lowliest truck driver in this town . . . is of more real use in life than you!”
The man from the Alps where liberty is as air was not as abashed by the turn of conversation as he was meant to be. The prime philosophical virtue can be a fine thing on occasion. He respectfully asked if Tex had heard of Aristotle, the source of the opinion as to the prime philosophical virtue. It may have been vanity, but the query acquired a positive response. “Then you may know of his remark that what is of no ‘use’ may—on that very account—be what is most to be valued.” We are not yet a race of philosopher kings, and this notion had not occurred to Tex. It did serve, though, to put a period to the social interval.
But can there be “value” in pursuing what is of no “use”? The academy has been founded upon an apt set of observations, as startling as indefeasible, as disturbing as ignored: one, that our time has spawned a greater number of political murders than all other times put together; two, that these deaths are a consequence not of reversion to savagery, itself a real enough result, but of philosophy. The academy stipulates that the philosophies in question are, to be sure, demonstrably bad ones, ideologies passed off as philosophies, stratagems for psychological manipulation, even systematic anti-philosophies: that modernity is largely antipathetic to the traditional claims of philosophy as well as a consequence of its very attitude, that influential philosophers of the last three centuries have expended inordinate energies discrediting themselves. Whence the scorn of our no-nonsense Texan. He probably does know where the oil well is, after all.
But would he recognize his cousins-in-contempt? The ones who said, “God is dead. Nothing is true. Anything goes”? The ones who scoffed, “Philosophers have explained the world—it is necessary to change it!”? The ones who sneered, “Our enemies will never be in a position to tell us we lied”? The ones who hoked up the portrait of Albert Einstein for the cover of Time with the rubric, “It’s all relative,” as if the physicist himself had never said—as he had, repeatedly—that none of his theories had philosophical relevance at all? Or that school of linguistics that thought it had debunked the scandal of words actually meaning anything?
So we—who comprise in our own estimation the most sophisticatedly disillusioned human race since the opening words of Ecclesiastes—let swarms of meaningless words and hoked up images assail us every day. The phonier they come off, the truer we are apt to take them to be.
One evidently well-known thinker of our time I had the luck not to have heard of made front page news a few years back by declaring that history had come to an end. I happened to have been in Anatolia at the time, where the father of history and the first Ionian philosopher were born. This news flash led me to think that we have grown so used to the savor of sophistry we are likely to gag on any taste of truth, a predicament one sour Greek had commented upon even in his day: “Nothing ‘is.’ If it ‘were,’ it would be indefinable; if definable, incommunicable; if communicable, still unintelligible.”
This sounds to me now like only a fair appraisal of the task the academy has set itself. It will involve the healing of atrophied perception, the revival of the love of wisdom in its ancient and eternal sense, the restoration of the primacy of quality over quantity, mind over matter. For this to happen, we will have to allow some meaning to the evidence of things not seen and stop pretending that our own is the only form of mind.