Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Alone together

It is rarely my intention here to say anything original. This is for two reasons: I am not sure that I have many original thoughts that would be worth sharing and much of what is thought of as original—especially in philosophy where, for instance, that great turning point of modern philosophy, Descartes' Cogito in a philosophy that is supposed to start from nothing, is really just a reiteration of a point Augustine made more than a millennium earlier in his Confessions—is really just someone else's idea the source of which is forgotten.
So, for quite a while, I have been thinking about a theme which seems to recur in numerous philosophical and religious contexts throughout quite a bit of human history, viz., the juxtaposition of the solitary and the communal. Think of the sadhus of Hinduism or the forest monks of Theravada Buddhism, mountain sages of Taoism, Diogenes of Sinope in his tub in the city, John the Baptist in the New Testament, the Desert Fathers of early Egyptian Christianity, the medieval anchorites living in hermitages or walled into parish churches, the startsy of Russian Orthodoxy, the Carthusians living as hermits in a community, Wittgenstein in his hut in Norway and his cottage in Ireland and in both cases engaged in extensive correspondence.
In each of these cases—and each is thought of as an example of wisdom in the tradition from which it comes—we see a person or persons who both ache for and/or embrace solitude and, at the very same time, are engaged in deeply social behavior.
This, I think, suggests something important and central to the human condition. We are social beings, as Aristotle noted in the Ethics, but we also recognize ourselves as apart. As many psychologists and philosophers now think, one of the thing that distinguishes us from (most of the) other animals is that we have a theory of mind. That is, we are able to see that others also have perspectives on the world, as we do. But, this also implies that we realize that there are other perspectives on us. This, in part is why, unlike almost all the other animals, we can recognize ourselves in mirrors; we realize that there are other perspectives than our own and those perspectives are also perspectives on us. But, this means that we have a unique perspective, one that is unsharable. 
We are, at one and the same time, naturally social—to leave society is, all too often, in Aristotle's terms, to become a beast—and prevented from full social sharing. We are called to and barred from community by our natures. And this, I think, makes human life a paradox. One that is insoluble except through embracing it as so many sages have attempted to do. Most of us, I fear, are unwilling to do just this.

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