Spluttering, gurgling, wheezing, snuffling, urping, coughing, snorting, ear-popping, spluttering — you get the idea — in my sick bed yesterday as the heat soared to a furnace outdoors, the thought came to me amidst tissues, Strepsils throat lozenges and glasses of iced water: can philosophy teach us how to live? And I staggered out of bed to connect with the Internet and found that yes, philosophy offers an art of life.
Such a comfort. Now if I can only get my damn sphincter to tighten up when I have a coughing fit, I can face the quandaries of the universe with equanimity.
In this understanding of the Western tradition, the chief reason for studying philosophy is not a desire to know more about the world, but a profound sense of dissatisfaction with the state in which one finds oneself at a given moment. One day you suddenly, painfully realize that something important is missing in your life, that there is a gap between what you currently are and the sense of what you could be. And before you know it, this emptiness starts eating at you. In a way, you don’t even exist yet. (It must have been in this sense that Socrates used the term “midwifery” for what he was doing; by subjecting those around him to the rigors of his philosophy, he was bringing them into existence properly.) Philosophy thus presupposes a certain degree of self-detestation. It may well be that philosophizing begins in shame. If you are a bit too comfortable with yourself, if there is nothing you are ashamed of, you don’t need philosophy; you are fine as you are.
Outdoors the sun shines on, the catalpa tree flowers white, my agapanthus quiver in electric blues, roses tumble into bloom. In bed I lie and wonder if the buzzing I hear is cicadas in the trees or the zzz of blocked ear canals. I gingerly take mouthfuls of tuna and brown rice, pureed spinach and butternut, broccoli soup, steamed carrot … and taste nothing. No smell, no taste, no pleasure. Friends call and I croak and bark away at them. The dogs sprawl around me and on me, dreams come and go with feverish intensity. The housemate is also ill and more stoic, it seems to me though she says not. My mind is cotton wool and yet the flow of questions, doubts, uncertainties, fleeting moods, cravings, aversions, sadness, happiness, discontents — all this just flows on, unceasingly, distractions, shifts, reiterations, echoes, leaves on the surface of this stream we call our life. Flowing and flown, another momentary mood or reaction swallowed up by time, passing as I notice the feeling, ask the question.
How to live differently, how to embrace what is feared and detested, how to keep growing?
Sometimes self-examination is a curse and the self-examiner a doomed person. Foucault remarked that “taking care of the self is not a rest cure.” In its essence, self-examination is painful struggle and self-overcoming. Unexamined life may not be worth living, but examined life can be unlivable. Philosophers gladly proclaim “know thyself,” but often they forget to mention the high price that comes with such knowledge. Indeed this is no comfortable learning; it is after all, as Foucault notices, knowledge of one’s limits and limitations. To the extent that any serious quest for wisdom (the very definition of philosophy) starts in self-examination, the one who embarks on it is faced with a world of anguish, inner conflicts, groundlessness, even personal disaster.
So there are the stormy waters, the shoals, the jagged rocks. But also this eddy, this small pool where I drift and sleep and slowly convalesce. Enough for now.