When I was a child, I can remember wondering about all kinds of seemingly insoluble questions. Why am I here? Where was I before I was born? How could I come from not existing at all to being a real person? If my parents had not married, would I have existed in someone else’s body, as the child of other parents?
If the world and the universe was created, what existed before it? Nothing? How could nothing exist? How could there be no things, and no time? Is all of this a cruel joke, or is it an ineffable mystery? One of my favorite problems had to do with colors. What if what we both agree is green looks different to you and me? Could one person’s red be another person’s purple? I wasn’t talking about color blindness, as my father always assumed; I was talking about people who could differentiate colors who nevertheless perceived them differently.
I remember pondering some questions of existence along these lines one day while riding in the car. I can still remember exactly where I was when it all overwhelmed me, and I felt overcome with a dazzling confusion. An eight-year-old runs out of words for these kinds of things quickly, but we might just consider that honesty, as opposed to an adult who can go on for a bit longer without really saying anything.
Few of the clergy and none of the school teachers are interested in questions like this, and so I went years without realizing that there is a whole body of work that deals with the ultimate—or, if you wish, fundamental—questions. I speak, of course, of philosophy. As a graduate of a music conservatory, my only class in this lasted a mere semester, and it wasn’t very good, at that. But it did introduce me to thinkers like Plato and Aristotle and Augustine—even Erasmus (a loveable fellow) and Luther. And after I got over my hatred of the course work (when the class was over, obviously), I developed a delight in delving into these volumes.
Over the years I picked up a spotty self-education in philosophy and religion, with lots of gaping holes and little systematic understanding. Until two weeks ago. I was in Baltimore and stumbled upon a used book store, which—like most used book stores—had an ample philosophy section, compliments of the incurious who are eager to dump old required reading from college. Among other things, I picked up Richard Tarnas’s book, The Passion of the Western Mind, which covers the whole of Western thought from pre-Socratic Greece up until its publication in the early 1990’s. I’ve been looking for something like this for awhile, something good in which the author does not have an ax to grind and in which he does not, once he gets to modern times, go down obscure rabbit holes while trying to pass them off as the whole of contemporary thought. Tarnas’s book is such a work.
This book possesses one of the foremost hallmarks of greatness, which is the invisibility of the author. It is as if you’re reading directly from Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. I think this has something to do with Tarnas’s genuine curiosity. While he intimates that he does not agree with the thinking of Medieval Christianity, he nevertheless gives it quite a fair hearing and urges the reader to understand the importance of knowing what people like Aquinas really said, so that we can better appreciate what came later, particularly the work of William of Occam and the epistemological conundrum that the West found itself in once reason and revelation were separated. This problem led to the work of Descartes and the debate between the English empiricists and the Continental rationalists and culminated—for a short time—in the synthesizing work of Immanuel Kant.
Two things dawned on me while reading all of this. First, there is not a thought or a question that you or I have ever had that was not considered centuries, if not millenia, ago. We have been wrestling with the same angels and demons in the night for our entire history, and one idea comes into ascendence as another fades away. There is not much originality in the world; the scale of our thought only has so many notes. Second, it seems that philosophers, as much as I love them, often stake out opposite but equally ridiculous positions in a given debate. Those who try to come up with something more reasonable or nuanced are often ignored. Etienne Gilson, in his book Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages, discusses Thomas Aquinas’s attempted compromise between the Latin Averroeists, who were ultimately rationalists, and the mystics in the thirteenth century. Aquinas was ignored, thanks to the inroads the Averroeists had made, and this resulted ultimately, for better or worse, in the divide between science and religion.
But it is not just a problem of philosophical stubbornness or extremism that causes this. As we think and write and question, it seems as if we’re going around in circles around a great big hole, an empty space where truth seems to reside and which will tolerate no description in words. Our attempts to get there only lead to distortion and confusion. The musical scale of our thought, as it were, must be translated into a new mode, and from what place will these New Songs come?
Does this mean that philosophy is a waste of time? I don’t think so. To approach even the unanswerable questions makes us more human, if only because it makes us more humble. We don’t know as much as we think we do, and philosophers are usually the first to admit that, the folksy protestations of the pragmatic notwithstanding. This confrontation with the ineffable is precisely what makes philosophy a passion, in both senses of the word: It is a love affair, but it is also a suffering. Even today, borrowing from St. Paul, humanity groans as it tries to give birth to a fuller understanding of what it means to exist. There is, in my opinion, only one disastrous outcome possible—that we cease our labors and begin to live as animals, witless participants in a technologically-advanced dark age of stupidity.
One cannot write, or read for that matter, a history of Western thought without wondering where we go from here. Tarnas puts a lot of stock in the idea of a collective conscious and in the reuniting of male and female which he shows has been a recent theme in many spheres. He’s surely no cultural traditionalist, but I don’t think this idea should be dismissed out of hand. In Christ, St. Paul said, there is neither male nor female. Maybe this has eschatological and not just evangelical meaning. Angels have no gender. Think, too, of all the ancient texts that intimate that the sexes grew separately out of the same source. There are, of course, crazy people who would put all boys on Ritalin if they could so they behaved more like girls, but I don’t believe this is what Tarnas is aiming for. He’s on another plane entirely. If I tried to sum up his position I would likely do it some violence, so just read the book, and allow yourself to wonder along with the author.
Every commentator has his favorite hobby horse when it comes to theories about what it is that ails modern society. Maybe the good news is that they all seem to agree that society is ailed. This is a start. I myself am unmoved for the most part by drug use, teen pregnancy, wars, violence, and the like. They should be eliminated, yes, but they are nothing new. What troubles me is the fundamental shift in what knowledge is considered to be. You are thought educated these days if you can perform brain surgery but few believe it to be essential to be curious about what the first cause of the material world is. We will not cease to feel homeless—and therefore prone to all manner of self-destructive behaviors—until we can at least begin to be curious about these ultimate questions. Many philosophy books are dry, and so the undergraduate careerist shirks them off and takes them to the used book store. But Tarnas’s book is anything but boring and has the power to stir up the enthusiasm of even the most rotten materialist. Whoever gave this book to the used book store was a fool.