On Victory In The Games
Before I get to the feature presentation, I want to say this: I don’t think civilian reporters or photographers belong on military aircraft during battle situations. I understand the reason they’re out there, and obviously when there’s a war on foreign soil with few witnesses who get to stay alive, you want “objective” news reporting on the scene (LOLOL). But if I was this kid’s mother, I wouldn’t want his face plastered on the New York Times website looking like that. I just don’t think that picture helps anybody who’s willing to actually read the fucking article understand the situation in Afghanistan any better.
Anyway. How can it be so difficult to convince people that philosophy has a bearing on contemporary life? We flatter ourselves to have outpaced the primitive naivité of the ancients, but here’s this Greek lawmaker 2,500 years ago who had this shit better figured out than anybody does today. In his much-anthologized “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot writes something along the lines of (not a quote), “Somebody said to me once that we know so much more than the ancients. And I said, ‘Exactly, they are what we know.’” That’s exactly how I feel about the archive of philosophy. So many problem have already been debated and theorized; even if the solutions didn’t work or even if they only worked temporarily, why start from scratch every time and pretend to reinvent the world? Instead of reading billions of dense, head-scratching pages of Hegel’s scientific system, or even a contemporary physics manual, why not just read Aristotle’s scientific system in a few weeks, then read a couple of books about how it’s been updated and critiqued over the last few thousand years, and come up with your own composite understanding of how things work? The point isn’t to actually reinvent a “true” or “accurate” theory of science in your living room. The point is to produce useful schemas, concepts, and diagrams that will help you in your own conceptual labor. If you don’t understand what you’re reading, it’s not going to be very much help. A lot of the ‘canon’ is dense and impenetrable, and I think that’s why many people are intimidated by “Continental” philosophy; it’s very hard to read without training, and the training is difficult. But what I’m saying is that there are texts beyond the canon, in the archive of the history of philosophy, texts nobody’s every taught you or told you about, that are completely legible, entirely rational by any reasonable standard, and directly relevant to problems of thought we encounter in our everyday lives. This is the exactly the same argument that psychoanalysis gives for reading Freud’s case histories of severe neurotic pathology; the idea is that the principles observed in previous cases can be of help in even, mundane, everyday diagnostics. Fuck the ‘canon,’ and the fuck this strange concept of ‘Continental’ philosophy. I mean, really. England is one place and all of Europe is another place? Trust me, I’ve been all over England, and it’s a fucklot more monotonous than the 5-hour drive from Berlin to Prague (no hookers along the highway in Yorkshire, for example, not to mention that every Czech man I’ve ever met has been either “bisexual” or “drunk”).
But more importantly, we have this strange notion that there is a “history of Western philosophy” which begins in Greece, continues in Rome, turns into the Catholic Church and its Latin philosophy, and then gives birth to Descartes and modern philosophy. There is no such history. At all. “Greek philosophy” began, almost certainly, in Assyria and Egypt; all the earliest stories about Greek philosophers (many preserved and retold, often with considerable and amusing embellishment, by Diogenes Laertius in his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers) describe astronomical activity, and virtually all describe men who gained renown for making predictions, either about the weather, or about the mating patterns of animals, of about whatever. In other words, the historical record points strongly to the idea that the first “philosophers” were the only people in their respective Greek community who had a calendar and could do basic math, both skills which were foreign imports. So strong was the correlation between astronomy, prediction, and Greek philosophy that centuries after these earliest pioneers a thinker as sophisticated and innovative as Epicurus still felt the need to expound in his system at length about meteorology.
That isn’t to say that the Greeks didn’t invent “philosophy as we know it”; systematic logic, the systematic study of argumentation and discussion, and the systematic study of rhetoric are probably all Greek inventions. But this invention did not then “stay at home,” so to speak. We imagine that Greek philosophy migrated to Rome as so many other aspects of Greek culture did, and that that’s where the Catholic Church found it. But that’s not quite the case, either. It’s true that from Athens, Greek philosophy was taken home among the other cultural trophies from the sack of Corinth in BC 146, and that Roman thinkers like Cicero basically invented both the concept of translating philosophy and the basic vocabulary of philosophy we still employ today in metaphysics and logic. But after the capture of Athens in BC 86, the center of Greek philosophy didn’t really migrate to Rome: it migrated mostly east, to Alexandria, Asia Minor, Syria, and the islands in between, especially Rhodes (philosophers seem to like being on the water). And after the fall of Rome, it was in the east, in Byzantium, that philosophy’s archive was by and large preserved, and it was mostly in Syria, and then in Baghdad, that Greek philosophy was translated, commented on, systematized, and, in essence “kept alive. Fragments of Greek philosophy survived in Europe, mostly in quotations and summaries by Christian writers who critiqued and and derided the “pagan” Greek thinkers. These are by and large the same Christian “fathers” who condemned these pagan philosophers and are largely responsible for the nearly complete destruction of the Stoic, Epicurean, and pre-Socratic archives, not to mention the same “fathers” who encouraged the mob in Alexandria to storm the temple in which the Neo-Platonic philosopher Hypatia was hiding and rip her limb to limb before feeding her to dogs. A few brave thinkers who spoke both Latin and Greek, like Boethius and John Scotus Eriugena, worked to translate and disseminate Greek thought in these uncertain centuries and succeeded in putting a few of Aristotle’s logical treatises into Latin circulation. But it wasn’t until the later middle ages, beginning in the early 11th century, that Greek philosophy “as we know it” arrived in “Europe.” I say arrived because when it left, there was no Europe.
The point of all this (other than to rehearse an argument for a paper I’m writing) is to say that in all these translations and transitions and Enlightenments and rapings and pillagings, there was a constant process of selectionhappening. Romans visiting Athens decided which texts to take home. Athenians fleeing the Romans decided which texts to take with them into exile. Arabic translators decided which texts to translate, as did Jewish ones and Latin ones, at multiple points in the history of philosophy. And so one. So when we speak of the “canon,” when Whitehead says that the entire history of philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, or when Derrida speaks of “the history of metaphysics from Socrates to Freud,” there’s something really misleading there. Because this is one history of philosophy. And it’s a history of philosophy produced by material historical forces, most important of which is the rise and cultural censorship of the Christian religion. But despite how effective and persistent this work of cultural censorship was, we are fortunate that even of the most ancient thinkers a few scraps remain, and the scraps turn into an increasingly voluminous archive the closer we get to the present (I would honestly and genuinely give my left testicle for a complete manuscript of Epicurus’s On Nature or Chrysippus’s works on logic - they have very realistic fake ones now - but at least the bastards didn’t manage to crush Spinoza). The “canon” of Western philosophy reflects a particular history of philosophy - one particular narrative. But the archive, which is so much more vast than the canon, allows us to construct our own narratives by reaching back to philosophies that didn’t make the cut in the qualifying final. In other words, isn’t it about time to subject the history of philosophy to the same deconstructive treatment that literary and aesthetic canons have been receiving for the last few decades?
There’s a lot to read. And the more languages you can read, the bigger the archive you have access to. English has been a dominant language in the humanities a very short time. Many ancient texts where don’t exist in English are available in find critical editions in Latin, French, German, Italian or, in the case of Andalusian Arabic and Jewish texts especially, Spanish. If you like cracking your skull on Hegel and Lacan and Kant, help yourself. Want my copy? But if you don’t enjoy those experiences and you’re convinced that there’s something else out there, go find it. Look in the archive.