From start to start over

For those who wish to get clear of the difficulties it is advantageous to discuss the difficulties well; for the subsequent free play of thought implies the solution of the previous difficulties, and it is not possible to untie the knot of which one does not know. But the difficulty of our thinking points to a ‘knot’ in the object; for insofar as our thought is in difficulties, it is in like case with those who are bound; for in either case it is impossible to go forward. Hence one should have surveyed all the difficulties beforehand, both for the purposes we have stated and because people who inquire without first stating the difficulties are like those who do not know where they have to go; besides, a man does not otherwise know even whether he has at any given time found what he is looking for or not; for the end is not clear to such a man, while to him who has first discussed the difficulties it is clear. (Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book B, 1)

It is hard not to admire the courage and confidence Aristotle displays in this passage. Let us only enumerate the difficulties, one by one, in order of ascending complexity, and not only will the path to the truth become clear, but the difficulties themselves will dissolve, and the mind will be set free to roam unencumbered through the halls of speculative thought. But in our day and age — though I can only speak for myself — this attitude not only seems superhuman, but naive. Aristotle had Thales and Pythagoras to deal with, Heraclitus and Plato. What do we have? All these and more: Augustine, Adorno, Bataille, Barthes, Blake, Bonhoeffer, Carrol, Chesterton, Coleridge, Confucius, Derrida, Dostoevsky, Einstein, Eliot, Eliade, Feuerbach, Fichte, Goethe, Habermas, Heidegger, Huxley, Hume, Hippolyte, Ibn Arabi, Jung, Jefferson, St. John, Kant, King Jr., Kristeva, Kripke, Levinas, Lacan, Lao Tzu, Lucretius, Luxemburg, Lyotard, Malebranche, Malraux, Machiavelli, Marx, Nagarjuna, Novalis, Nietzsche, Ockham, Origen, Pascal, Pierce, Rorty, Rilke, Ramana, Ricoeur, Sartre, Shestov, Schleiermacher, Spinoza, Tolstoy, Tillich, Unamuno, Vasubandu, Vico, Whitehead, Wittgenstein…

There is something blissfully easy about Aristotle’s difficulties. Who but a man of leisure could take up the question of metaphysics at such length, proclaiming his science free, existing only for its own sake? In what subsequent time in history could any such “for its own sake” exist? There is too much at stake these days; and while all artists seek immortality in their art, even if it’s just the kind won through an inert book or canvas, only this master and manipulator of ancient thought could have imagined a Good following from, causing, and active in all things. Only he could have imagined a doctrine so consolidated around an “unmoved mover.” But is this not the whole mystery of our Greek and Roman heritage, this vague place from whence we came? In a world measured by weekly popularity polls, new television episodes, where the daily struggle for true freedom is stripped of its universally applicable prescriptions, where conquest-structuring narratives are so absent, doesn’t “the past” itself become a kind of “unmoved mover”? A past as fragmented in purpose and direction as the writers just listed, including their epochs? A glorious but imaginary past, which we will never really encounter or access, save perhaps in its trembling prosopopeia, and whose real message was only vaguely known by those who sent it? I would not begrudge the modern man for being angry with these Greeks, these careless orators and rhetoricians whose ideas, at least in part, gave birth the Western world, whose scale was so monstrous that even Napoleon became its exile. Aristotle — did he really know where he was going? Had the difficulties really been cleared away?

Of course, we cannot revoke what our own Empire has caused. There is no better or worse starting point or proving ground. There is nothing else to respond to. And yet we share in an oblivion that Aristotle could have never imagined. His thought bears no trace of oppression. Whatever he says, he is not responsible for anything. Free play is the rule — that is, when the difficulties foreseeably give in. We are not, and will never be, so sure of this. We regard ourselves with a hard-won suspicion; we dare not exorcise it. But unless we ignore our trepidation, we will not see anything and the future will not see us. We cannot wait to know, or to clear up the difficulties, before acting. And yet action seems futile as ever…

Aristotle’s mind could not have been so different from ours; and yet it seems to us that, for this philosopher of the eternal, time itself had not even gotten going yet. Aristotle did not see Auschwitz. His pool of priors was so sufficiently similar for him, his Plato so simply located in this lineage of thought (really, the only one available, even if it had absorbed elements from abroad), that the question of unity and being was of course a primary one. But if it was a question of a universal then, this is only because something manifestly historical was first erupting. That Aristotle could take up the question of the source of this movement, and not only that of the substrate for material processes, seems to be elementary evidence that, just then, the very source deemed eternal was invented into existence. And at that very moment, this same universal was democratized, made local. Demythologized just then, God was born and died in the same blow, even if we are still under the spell of universalizing intentions. One glance at the voluminous writing required to prove Him — see Aquinas — shows that this invention was and remains no easy task. But after Nietzsche — or after Christ? — we know that the only way to really invent God is to destroy him. What these latter two did willingly, consciously, or at least submissively, all the systematizers from Aristotle to Hegel did the same. Who has more faith, the believer or the crucified? Who, among us, could tell the difference?

Do we know any better how do deal with the weight of our own novelty? Have we any better strategy for preservation? Have we any more foresight? Perhaps what unites all of us is the fact that our own work forms us by steering us in its own direction. Perhaps this is also what makes us all forgiven sinners: we know not what we do. Now, at least, we’ve begun to register this, if not globally, then at least one-by-one, as time marches on, discovering each of us. That one is led to the system and the other to the aphorism is not the result of personal proclivities, nor of any collective unconscious. It has to do with the unfolding of an aimless history whose boundaries and beginnings we ourselves invent, in a time whose calendars are arbitrary, with pens whose ink we bought.

Aristotle, whose opinions are airtight and fruitful, is now just another thinker. The “unmoved mover” is just another theory whose evolution we can trace through time, another model to compare with Eckart’s or Niebuhr’s. Let’s never doubt Aristotle’s writing under the auspices of Absolute Knowledge; but at the same time, he shewed how expendable thinking really is, or rather, how it can only be conducted with an aim to its own end. The relationship forged between a writer and his writing is like that forged between the unmoved mover and the cosmos. The latter turns out to betray you and its laws prove arbitrary; but the former is much worse off, since it proves to be a mute construct, a negligible part in the process of becoming, required only in the production of the work, and then just long enough to get the ball rolling. Once the thing gets moving, you can count first principles out.

We know this because of how unstable our daily situation is. My invention implies my emptying. But back then, the menacing and irreversible solidity of “the past” of humanity had not yet taken on such massive proportions. Oblivion, so to speak, had not yet congealed. It had not yet started seeping out around the now-blurry edges of reality– in fact, it had just started its preliminary exercises, playing with reason (λόγος) and writing (γράμμα). It had not yet been trained with the rough facts of Terror and Tycoon. Drafting constitutions had not yet proved interminable. But before these, something like a “first cause and principle” could seem perfectly in order: how else could I say anything, how else could we be here, without such a grounding?

In Aristotle, something like a genuine beginning can be noticed. The subsequent “splintering of sense” — which is how Jean-Luc Nancy characterizes the mutation of civilization that began at least with the Greeks — makes no sense without this imagined initial cause and motivator for universal Good. Truth is, we still presuppose it, if only to get ourselves motivated to act. But these days, we’ve got to do so differently. We’ve got to recognize that our excursions do not carry an external guarantee from God, Goodness, or any other justifying Reason. The world is senseless; this we’ve got to know. The cosmos was not set into motion by anything; in fact, perhaps the only appropriate attitude is one that affirms, paradoxically, that it has not even been set in motion yet. For the purpose for all this remains to be seen. Perhaps Aristotle’s one blind spot regarded his own role in the movement: so convincing was the splendor of his own thought, or his own writing, it was impossible to imagine it empty and unfounded. Perhaps it was impossible for him to grasp his own motivation. Then again, does anyone really know what is genuinely beginning with them?

Causes change daily; we “contribute.” No one asserts a “first principle” without appearing dubious; the rest are deemed too-serious or maniac. Generally speaking, we live in an age where one thing is for certain: none of us know for certain what time it is. Such a problem would have never occurred to wise Aristotle. But as Borges has one of his self-refractions say in his story The Library of Babel, “I have known what the Greeks do not know, incertitude.” Elsewhere he writes, “Time is the substance I am made of.” Freud’s discovery or invention of the unconscious also attests to this strange shift in the topos of human reality. With this creation, time becomes our own to create: we live in imaginary countries, we are each our own highest purpose and dead end. But if our civilization and the philosophy that shaped it could emerge from the question of Number (Pythagoras), or of Being (Parmenides), or of Form (Plato), or of Flux (Heraclitus), or of Reason (Anaxagoras), it was not only to provide us with a multiplicity of models that we might later choose from at our own behest; and Aristotle did not just come along to dismiss those precocious beginnings as the mere kindling for a unified system of Science, whose branches could be neatly divvied up in to the theoretical, practical, and productive. On the contrary, all of this transpires, and continues to, in an imaginary land of our own, i.e., the landscape of whoever reads them. Along the way, one view leads to the next whether or not the progression makes sense, whether we are led to conflict, clarification, or culmination (and between these we can hardly judge). Detours become necessary, an excess of words something, and we take joy in this; but in the end, our imagined time drops out, and we cannot rely on any supra-temporal Good to get us out of this. This is an oblivion we’ve got to face. 

Aristotle — literally, “the best end”– sits eternally in his helpless position, unmoved. Both the systematic nature of his works and the fact that they come down to us in such volume– as opposed to those who came before him, whose thoughts are often anecdotal and limited to a few fragments — all of this signals to me that his world knew something terrible was about to happen to it, something that would truly tear it in two, far beyond the comparatively boring plight of Oedipus. Aristotle, the best himself, had no way of knowing what was coming. While he doesn’t admit this, and in fact denies it, in hindsight, the anxiety is too visible. Our harsh consciousness of history knows that a good chunk of this anxiety has already exploded out; but also that, in all likelihood, it has only just begun, it is always just beginning. And it is as if we become more conscious of this to the very degree we feel helpless to act to counter it — as if, in our descent from our past, we were destined to become ever more occluded as to the “reason” for our existence. The place we ourselves hold becomes more empty. And yet our language, the expression of our “abandonment,” becomes ever more precise, just as we become ever more blind in it, condemned to writing, that futility par excellence. For man is erased, writes Foucault, just as the horizon of the being of language becomes more dazzling. Paradoxically, this means the disappearance of Discourse. We are not sure who it dazzles for. 

I envision an age when thinkers will be so perceptive to what is shaking in them, in their time, that the very question of the unity of their person vanishes altogether; where the very drive for “unity” will vanish in the eternity, not of the mover, but of the Library; and they will sign work after work in total ignorance of who signs it, ignorant of the very question. Perhaps halfway through their life, they will sway into a new dialect, medium or genre. Unawares of the change and no longer needing to register it, they’ll shift from writing treatises to graffiti poems to computer programs. They won’t be lost, not because they had a direction, but because the very index for being lost will have ceased to exist. Their thought will sit unified in each fragment and the fragments will not dare come together. They will write for anyone and there will be consequences. They’ll be unable to assume Aristotle’s embarrassing position, even though, for all practical purposes, they’ll be doing nothing different than he did, repeating the same desire for knowledge with the same gesture, ignorant of its own scope and power. They will all share in that lineage of universals, pursuing the “truth” — or whatever they end up calling it.

Not unlike Aristotle, we’ve all got our own private Greece, which, like it or not, now includes Tunisia, North Asia, Brazil. We’ve no better grasp on our day than he could have had of his. The questions are pertinent, but asking them yield little: How do you know when to stop studying and start acting? Where does the border between observation and understanding, and creation and risk-taking lie? Where the past, where the present? Where my ambition, where the common impetus? I can but imagine a sanctum for these and watch them grow. I can prevent my invention from being haphazard, even if a series of beginnings does not a progression make. Even if starting over and over ends up being meaningless. In fact, let’s admit it, nothing ever gets easier. The conditions of inquiry do not get better. The beforehand difficulty will not be cleared away.

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