Philosophy is not Neosporin

slide_353695_3848604_freeThe title attracted me like a colourful flower. In “There is no Theory of Everything”, Simon Critchley scratches at the distressing question of the meaning of life:

Philosophy scratches at the various itches we have, not in order that we might find some cure for what ails us (…) Philosophy is not Neosporin. It is not some healing balm. It is an irritant, which is why Socrates described himself as a gadfly.

This is one way of approaching the question of life’s meaning (…) The mistake is to believe that there is an answer to the question of life’s meaning. As Douglas Adams established quite some time ago, the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything will always be “42” or some variation of 42. Namely, it will be something really rather disappointing.

The point, then, is not to seek an answer to the meaning of life, but to continue to ask the question (…)

We don’t need an answer to the question of life’s meaning, just as we don’t need a theory of everything. What we need are multifarious descriptions of many things, further descriptions of phenomena that change the aspect under which they are seen, that light them up and let us see them anew.

It is so mind-the-post-ish! But for all the beauty of this nihilist approach to the meaning of life, there is another one which is even more pressing, more disquieting. The answer might not be a dull “42”. It might well be a sharp, brilliant explanation, and the problem might be that our intelligence is simply not enough to understand it. This is what Borges describes here(1) in an unparalleled way:

From the half-light of dawn to the half-light of evening, the eyes of a leopard, in the last years of the twelfth century, looked upon a few wooden boards, some vertical iron bars, some varying men and women, a blank wall, and perhaps a stone gutter littered with dry leaves. The leopard did not know, could not know, that it yearned for love and cruelty and the hot pleasure of tearing flesh and a breeze with the scent of deer, but something in-side it was suffocating and howling in rebellion, and God spoke to it in a dream:

You shall live and die in this prison, so that a man that I have knowledge of may see you a certain number of times and never forget you and put your figure and your symbol into a poem, which has its exact place in the weft of the universe. You suffer captivity, but you shall have given a word to the poem.

In the dream, God illuminated the animal’s rude understanding and the animal grasped the reasons and accepted its fate, but when it awoke there was only an obscure resignation in it, a powerful ignorance, because the machine of the world is exceedingly complex for the simplicity of a savage beast.

Years later, Dante was to die in Ravenna, as unjustified and alone as any other man. In a dream, God told him the secret purpose of his life and work; Dante, astonished, learned at last who he was and what he was, and he blessed the bitternesses of his life. Legend has it that when he awoke, he sensed that he had received and lost an infinite thing, something he would never be able to recover, or even to descry from afar, because the machine of the world is exceedingly complex for the simplicity of men.

(Jorge Luis  Borges, Inferno, I, 32)


Featured Image: Lenette Newell, Ani-Human Cheetah

(1) Jorge Luis  Borges, “El Hacedor” (The Maker) Inferno, I, 32. Translated by Andrew Hurley. This is the original text in spanish:

Desde el crepúsculo del día hasta el crepúsculo de la noche, un leopardo, en los años finales del siglo XIX, veía unas tablas de madera, unos barrotes verticales de hierro, hombres y mujeres cambiantes, un paredón y tal vez una canaleta de piedra con hojas
secas. No sabía, no podía saber, que anhelaba amor y crueldad y el caliente placer de despedazar y el viento con olor a venado, pero algo en él se ahogaba y se rebelaba y Dios le habló en un sueño: “Vives y morirás en esta prisión, para que un hombre que yo sé te mire un número determinado de veces y no te olvide y ponga tu figura y tu símbolo en un poema, que tiene su preciso lugar en la trama del universo. Padeces cautiverio, pero habrás dado una palabra al poema.” Dios, en el sueño, iluminó la rudeza del animal y éste comprendió las razones y aceptó ese destino, pero sólo hubo en él, cuando despertó, una oscura resignación, una valerosa ignorancia, porque la máquina del mundo es harto compleja para la simplicidad de una fiera.

Años después, Dante se moría en Ravena, tan injustificado y tan solo como cualquier otro hombre. En un sueño, Dios le declaró el secreto propósito de su vida y de su labor; Dante, maravillado, supo al fin quién era y qué era y bendijo sus amarguras. La tradición refiere que, al despertar, sintió que había recibido y perdido una cosa infinita, algo que no podría recuperar, ni vislumbrar siquiera, porque la máquina del mundo es harto compleja para la simplicidad de los hombres.

It is interesting to notice that in the original text, the leopard appears in the last years of XIX century, while in the english translations I have found, it is either XXII or XXIII. Does anyone know why?

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