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In A Concluding Homage To Sextus Empiricus
IN A CONCLUDING HOMAGE TO SEXTUS EMPIRICUS:—OF WISDOM, AND KNOWLEDGE IN FANCY DRESS, AT THE WORLD'S END BALL.

by JOE KEENAN

The certain truth there is no man who knows, nor ever shall be, about the gods, and all the things whereof I speak. Yea, even if a man should chance to say something utterly right, still he himself knows it not - there is no where anything but guessing. XENOPHANES,

Full of consequence, starved of meaning, Language is our Desert Father. Sometimes, like Antony, it is the lifeless soul of solitude. At other times, like Pachomius, it is the soulless life of the party. At all times it is poised for betrayal. Every word of it, however it may be pronounced, is spelt treacherous.

Verbs are cunning. Adverbs and adjectives are false friends. Pronouns prey on the poor in spirit. Nouns are full of deceit. And abstract nouns...abstract nouns are evil incarnate.

The word KNOWLEDGE is a dragon of a word; a fire-breathing sphinx of a word that burns up the knowlegeable in riddles.

Though it requires us to say it we do not have knowledge. Rather are we possessed by knowledge. It has us. And having us this tattered tautology dresses itself up in syllogisms and presents itself at the World's End Ball as wisdom. But, fancy dress apart, knowledge, which is a thing of the intellect, has very little in common with wisdom, which is a thing of the understanding.

Intellect is barren and dry; it knows everything and feels nothing. Intellect is in the world but it is not of the world. The human world is a world of touching and feeling, the world of an active reflection. It is not known in any passive intellectual operation abstracting from the things that are touched and felt, lived and loved. It is actively understood in the course of the touching and the feeling, the living and the loving.

Aquinas said of the truths of his theology that while they are not resolved in reason they do not offend against rational principles. Had he been right in that it would then be the case that theological truth is a function of human understanding, which it is not. He was wrong about his theology, each of the truths of which contradicts all the others, but he was right in that truth being prior to reason is not grounded in it.

Understanding is not a process of reasoning but since it is inevitably more or less clear, proper or otherwise, to the point or lost in the latitude and longitude of itself, it is subject to interrogation by reason. Understanding is irrational but it is not unreasonable about it. And wisdom then, which is a function of the understanding, is discovered hurling itself against the ramparts of all those knowledges which defy understanding.

The point at issue here is the velocity of that hurling, whether wisdom can be wise, can catch itself in the act of being itself, or must shatter on walls of dogma, of tautology, of harsh unyielding knowledge.

The ancient sceptical tradition which is preserved in the books of Sextus Empiricus hurled itself against the certain knowledges of a dogmatism that sought to limit the possibilities of a rapidly developing human life by defining the human world as eternally present to a narrowly conceived reason (the more narrowly reason is conceived the more it approximates to the static monism of Parmenides that led Plato into his world of ideal forms, than which I can imagine nothing more restricting; it is the very triumph of abstract nouns over all the particular adjectives of fleshy you and bloody me).

Pyrrho exposed the arguments of the dogmatists as circular or unfounded. Carneades had no more respect than Pyrrho for the tautologies and trivial axioms of certain knowledge but recognised that human life is lived in a maze of more or less probable outcomes.

The doubt which Sextus Empiricus expressed unlocked the door of that human maze. His doubt is a key of choice. Between probabilities choice is possible. Faced with certainty there is no choice, only a variety of ways in which to be damned.

Doubt is the beginning and the defining condition, but not the content, of wisdom.

Socrates, and later Descartes, engaged in a process of doubt as a matter of form in order to underline and reinforce their subsequent refoundation of structures of dogmatism. Theirs was an intellectual doubt the ramifications of which were beyond their understanding.

Socratic and Cartesian doubt both move formally from a more or less reasoned account of the inadequacy of sense perception to an imperceptible world of real reason.

Put it this way: at the World's End Ball Sophia steps out a measure while Gnosis twirls on a tautology. Wisdom is measured, aware of its own limits that are the defining conditions of the dance. Knowledge being absolute knows no measure and has no partner in the dance: it knows the conditions of the dance but really it isn't dancing.

Both Socratic and Cartesian doubt are false to their premises in that they are affected in order to establish positions which in each case were already known a priori.

In each case the mantle of philosophic doubt was assumed in order to cast a veil over the discovery of a gliding step in the dance that carried those philosophers past the clinch of a dilemma. The dilemma being that understanding is one thing and knowledge another.

It was more complicated for Descartes, but nonetheless rooted in the same incongruity that exercised Socrates; the rational gulf between a real appearance and the appearance of reality. The first of which is understood and the latter known.

Knowledge is a passive thing which requires the knowledgeable to stand back in an amazement of the thing itself. Understanding acts. In the first place perhaps only upon itself. But it acts.

A very knowledgeable man, the Cynic Diogenes, was once caught by his disciples in the agora of Athens in the act of being himself. He was found publicly masturbating, which rather disturbed the disciples. They were, I hope, even more disturbed when Diogenes put it to them that Man is a creature of appetites all of which are equally disgusting, but most less easily satisfied than lust. If only he could assuage hunger by rubbing his belly! Diogenes, I think, understood then more than he knew. His understanding, in this case at least, outstripped his knowledge.

Knowledge as such never moves beyond masturbation. It is absolute and so has no need, and can never envisage or tolerate, any partner. Let knowledge doubt itself, thereby inviting an acknowledgement that it is in the framework of probabilities, and knowledge in that moment denies itself. Denying itself then it invites a partner, and engaging with a partner it is no longer knowledge. It might then be, or at least aspire to be, wisdom.

And doubt as I said earlier is the beginning and the defining condition, but not the content, of wisdom. Wisdom is an active thing which occurs in the course of a life which is understood rather than thought, which is lived before it is reflected upon, which stands in the morning sun and screams all its consequences to the receding galaxies, which simply is because it does, and simply does because it is.

I should take this opportunity to attempt to explain a point I made in an earlier issue, on the distinction between complication and complexity.

As truth is prior to reason so living is prior to thought. Experience is prior to the propositions in which it is subsequently embodied or merely buried. Life is the ground of philosophy and the subject of history. And it is prior to both. No-one can think life, for what actually occurs in the attempt to do so is at best half-dead.

Life is complex in that it ramifies itself into the world. But a ramification is not a complication.

A complication is a matter of detail. A complicated situation is one in which ever further details elaborate on one another to confusion. But what has been elaborated can be unravelled. The most complicated design can be worked out and unpicked.

Life however cannot be worked out and unpicked. Once it has happened it is different and any working out or plucking at it makes it different again. A ramification is a consequence which cannot be undone, a choice which cannot be unmade, the last syllable in a couplet which cannot be unrhymed. The details of a life may be more or less complicated and known as such in passively subsequent reflection; life is a transparent complex that being actively understood may be remade in the course of itself.

Dogmas tie the mind in knots of imperatives and injunctions. Not only Thou Shalt Not but also Thou Shalt. Man as he lives out the ramifications of himself is beyond such simplicity. He yearns for all the complexity of working himself out in the process of just being himself.

Each such individual is a social being. This is the fundamental contradiction of human life. Whatever it is in us that might be said to be specifically human about the course and tenor of our animal life, it begins in just that contradiction. We emerge and stand upon the plain of ourselves as discrete humans whose individuality is socially determined. That is no journalistic paradox, still less is it a literary irony, but it is a contradiction. We apprehend ourselves as against and distinct from the social mass, but we are conceived in and formed by society.

In more than the sense of Aristotle's intention we are zoon politikon. Homo politicus, we are the creature that stands on two legs in the full light of the sun at noon and measures its shadow by the length and in the depth of its laughter.

It is that laughter that becomes us. We become ourselves, we catch ourselves in the act of being ourselves, as we find it in ourselves to laugh at ourselves. Such laughter at ourselves requires only an accomplice. It is a humour of the understanding. But there is also laughter at others which requires the inevitably unwilling participation of its victims.

This laughter, for all that it engages the same muscles and reflexes, is an intellectual revenge which takes us out of the structures of our social being and, in demeaning, dehumanises us. It is a laughter that becomes something very different in us. Jokes are only very rarely as spontaneous as the humour in the stories that understanding tells to entertain the wise, around those fires in which knowledges are consumed, by which the knowledgeable are illumined. Jokes are more often premeditated constructions through which the intellect engages to know its victims.

And so we laugh at the stage Irishman that Dion Boucicault created from the famine. Having laughed then we thrill as Hollywood accomplishes genocide along the banks of the Washita and the Rosebud. And we are horrified when the victims of that genocide assert themselves in blood on the greasy grass. Secure in the darkness of whatever it is within us that is not of us, in the back stalls of the picture house we feel for Custer!

Take us out of the social structures which support our individual character, the character of each of us as individuals, and the human personality disintegrates leaving, if anything, only the animal that has at all times lurked in the heart of the darkness within us. There is a human there but let him never forget that before he was human an animal prowled in the darkness within him and never, ever, never at all, let him forget that the animal within him is the dark heart of his reason.

Reason slaughtered us Paddies. Reason massacred the Lakota and reason waged war on an Hitlerian state that was guilty above all else of failing to see the joke of geopolitics. I do not deny that Hitler's Germany was dreadful. It was dreadful. It had a notion of cinema but no notion of the Comédie Francaise or the Funambules. Lacking both Deburau and Lemaître it was in Paradise Lost. Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will might of itself be enough to justify the fire bombing of Dresden; but anyone who argues that will be hard put to refuse Kurosawa an equal right to obliterate Chicago and Seattle.

Coming back to the argument, where the individual was discovered as a social being which can laugh at itself, it must now be necessary to make a more secure connection between those two factors; between individuality and laughter. This might best be accomplished with a joke, but I have argued myself past any flirtation with the dark side of humour. I can only point out, very drily, without the least attempt at wit, that wisdom is a quality of understanding and that as such it has to do with spontaneity.

However restrictive the social circumstances which permit it might appear to be, the human leaps always at the unconsidered gesture; the unconnected, discontinuous, thought; the generous act of pure freedom. Such is life. It is without any possibility of conscience. It simply is. The reflection and hesitation of conscience is all of it inimical to free, spontaneous, activity. In freedom we are aware of consequences. At our best we revel in consequences, but really conscience doesn't enter into it.

The ever (but not eternally) present distinction between freedom and necessity holds good here. While dogma enlarges the sphere of necessity, doubt, in undermining all those certainties, potentiates the realm of freedom. Wisdom is the perception and the awareness of that realm of freedom. Wisdom is the moment in which it is all actualised, the phase of itself in which freedom is made free by being itself.

There is some life in the shadow of certainties, but really it is only a shadow life. It can be considered in the brightest light of its clearest expression, in the Iliad where Hector puts every oracle to one side and walks like a man to his death. Achilles, who kills him, has no joy of the matter. As the poem has it "Hector walked living to his death at the hands of the living dead man - Achilles."

Achilles was god and therefore doom driven. Hector just took his chances. Achilles had to live in the shadow of his knowledge. Hector died in the light of not knowing. The Iliad is the poem of the wrath of Achilles, but nonetheless the hero of the Iliad is Hector. Hector was not doom driven as Achilles was. Unlike anyone else I can recall from the poem, Hector died on the plain ground of his own humanity. Achilles was a plaything of the gods. Hector was his own man, and never more so than in the moment of his death.

Hector died once and for all of his understanding. Achilles killing him was already dead, day in and day out, of his knowledge. When Odysseus in his own poem descended to harrow hell, he met Achilles, not Hector. It was Achilles who declared that he would gladly return to life in however mean a condition only so long as it was living. Hector who had known spontaneity in his life knew that a life without it wasn't worth living. The really dead man who had really lived understood what the living dead man could never know, that the point of it all is worthwhile only to the extent that it is ultimately unknowable.

I find a great deal of humour in the Iliad and I am sure that Hector, secure in the wisdom of his ignorance, could easily have died laughing at himself.

Contents

Home Page

Reason And Authority

Peter Abelard And Bernard Of Clairvaux

Deliver Us From Evil

What's God Got To Do With It?

The Lord Thy God Is A Jealous God

In A Concluding Homage To Sextus Empiricus…

Of Prods, And Gods, And Dancing Girls; And Censorship, And Things

Coleridge And The End Of Christian Economics

Innocent's Ward—The Wonder Of The World

A Sufficiency Of Grace

Beware The Ides Of March!?

Suspensions Of Disbelief

Hugh Shapland Swinny—Nationalism And Anti-Theology In Ireland At The Start Of The Twentieth Century

The Wage The Faithful Earn

An Overview Of Slavery In The Southern United States

The Darwin Controversy

America The Beautiful?

Puritanism And The Theatre

Meet the editorial staff of the Heresiarch

Index To Past Issues

Athol Books Web

Athol Books HomePage

Aubane Historical Society

Athol Books Secure Sales

Labour & Trade Union Review