The unexecuted life is not worth examining
August 4, 2020 § 11 Comments
When I was young and enamored of philosophy, I turned over again and again Socrates’s maxim that the unexamined life is not worth living.
I got older and put away childish things such as philosophy, and instead took up adult activities such as bicycles concomitant with the duties of adulthood, by which I simply mean “job.”
Job subsumed everything for over thirty years, even though the type of job itself changed. Job was a giant duty umbrella, a love-blocking parasol of responsibility painted in the dull green of money. Under that umbrella life thrived, things grew, and the troubling musings of philosophy, when they dared pop up, were doused with Round-Up, mercilessly weeded, and tossed out from under the protective shade of money.
Throughout those decades of job I would sometimes find my way back to philosophy, directly or by circuit. One year in Japan, I believe it was 1995, I emailed my old mentor Ed Allaire, philosophy professor nonpareil, and we had a short exchange.
“What is philosophy, though?” I asked him in one of our emails.
“That is a silly question,” he said.
Our exchange died a painless death shortly thereafter, but his few words stayed with me down the years, those just quoted, and these, reflections on the death of his parents: “They have been gone so long that the torments they inflicted only vaguely trouble me now.”
Also in, let’s say 1995, I discovered Chaucer, and then found his words again on or about January 28, 2019, the day, driving to the airport, that I tried to dredge up what bits and pieces of The Miller’s Tale that I had memorized during long and solitary bike rides throughout northern Japan.
Chaucer was a poet, which of all practices Socrates held higher than philosophy because he realized that it came from inspiration. In English, “inspire” of course means “to breathe into.” Into the poet was breathed the word. From where?
Chaucer, as all poets dabbled in philosophy, kind of my perfect mix, the soft porn of intellectual pursuit. A little hard work, lots of gentleness and beauty. And as I’ve ridden my bike up the west coast, reciting for hours on end the few thousand lines of Chaucer committed to memory, I’ve been able to turn them over and examine them in a way that I could never have done cloistered in a library or at home, in a nook with a book.
For example, “Who may ben a fool but if he love?”
Who, indeed? Nor is this insight limited to the 14th Century. Son House, the singer and guitar player of the 1930’s, put it this way: “Love make you do things you don’t wanna do.”
Throughout the cascade of our genome we have been made fools, we have done things we don’t wanna do, and we don’t know why. Put another way, physics doesn’t care about your emotions. You will cast aside everything you have, you will willingly throw away your life, you will plunge into any abyss for love.
The pleas of those you care most for, the reviling of society, the loss of all standing, regard, possessions, health, and outlook for the future will at a moment’s notice find themselves on the chopping block if they stand in the way of love. Why should this be? How can it be?
Well, I’ve heard tell that the unexamined life is not worth living. So let me not throw that away, too.
But the rest of that bit from Chaucer:
“The god of love, a benedicitee
How mighty and how great a lord is he.
Ayenst his might there gayneth none obstacles
He may be cleped a god for his miracles.
“Lo here this Arcite and this Palamon
That quitly weren out of my prison
And might han lived in Thebes roially
And witen I am hir mortal enemy
And that hir deeth lieth in my might also
And yet hath love maugree hire eyen two
Broght hem thider bothe for to dye.
Now is that not an heigh folie?
Who may ben a fool but if he love?”
Love is above all a thing of physics. It obeys the laws of particles and waves, finding resonance and synchronicity in itself, changing, quantum, such that it can either be located or have its velocity measured, but never both. It is the cat in the box, the thing and the un-thing.
And love between two people is never a function of romance or passion, it is the physical operation of subatomic things that cannot be seen but that govern the movement of each other. Trickling up, we see love’s synchronicity as romance, passion, shared interest, a nap together in the sunshine, the union of body and mind, but those things are never unique to love and can be generated, confusingly, in bits and pieces due to infatuation or eroticism or any number of other feelings.
Love is profoundly physical in the sense of physics, but even so it is rare because in life we are so seldom free to seek our companion particle when we are a wave, or to accept our companion wave when we are a particle. The money umbrella shields us from the cold but it also shields us from love; cast away the umbrella and you are still unlikely to find love, but you will certainly freeze to death.
The thing itself is the rarest of rare earth minerals. We look for it most often in the wrong places without even knowing that it is the object of our hunt. Again, Chaucer:
“We seken fast after felicitee
But we goon wrong ful often, trewely.”
The moment at which the thing finds us, however, life never again can be the same. Love changes us forever, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but the cat can never be put back in Schrodinger’s box because it was always both the cat and the un-cat. Determining that it is the one immediately and forever extinguishes the other. Seeing love for the first time eliminates forever all life that existed with non-love.
These truths are held to be so self-evident that mightily have poets, artists, musicians, humans of every stripe striven throughout the running hourglass of human existence to point them out. Each age has had to rediscover it, each generation has had to have its “Eureka!” moment, and each person caught in love’s tangle has had to piece together from the fragments of his past life what in the world just happened.
Lovestruck. The thunderbolt of love.
We build shrines to Shakespeare and a hundred others who tried to tell us that love is the great destroyer, the great leveler, hoping perhaps that the greater the shrine the more invincible we would ourselves be from the arrow, or from the operation of quantum physics.
In vain. Those defenses are pierced as easily as the bubble floating out of the end of a child’s soapy toy.
Despite all this, it leads to a place that isn’t any easier than the place it led from. After all this examination, then what? Was Socrates exhorting us to examine and then go back to sleep? Or, as he evinced in his own death, was he insisting that after the examination there must, for the process to be complete, be subsequent action in accord with the outcome of the exam?
Do you have the courage of your conviction?
Thankfully with love no courage is required; it operates on its own.
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