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The Sorrows of Knowing


Sorrow is knowledge: they who know the most
Must mourn the deepest o'er the fatal truth,
The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.
                                                      --Lord Byron, Manfred


Life tries to make it easier on us. The rhythm and cadence of everyday life are rarely upset or frustrated along their natural and unmindful flow, making it possible for us to go through days and days without losing our heads and, perhaps, giving us some amount of pleasure in living. In terms of our ability to forget ourselves, as we go through the dirty business of every day, we are not so unlike other animated beings: we breathe and eat and drink, walk and move about, stop and rest, care for ourselves and others without having to give these things much thought, without the need to take notice or give things a second look. For to take notice means to stop an activity; to look again means having to suspend one's work. Like a coffee break--that much needed respite at those times of the day when everything might be (without you noticing again) too much already. But even such breaks are really no breaks anymore, they come with the package of working, expected and no longer anticipated, something that I just have to take in order to hurry back to my activities, supposedly afresh and with renewed vigor. (It's crazy how I long for a cigarette as I work, and how I hurry my cigarette to get back to work.) Our breaks today are no longer breaks: we have come to also manage our rest when the point was to become free from all such management. Such breaks of the body never give the mind its proper rest, too. We keep on walking.

A thing of beauty, walking is. You lift one foot and push yourself forward with the other, for a moment trusting your whole weight on one spindly extremity, only to shift that weight back to the itinerant foot as it is reunited with the earth. The shifting of balance, the transfer of your center of gravity from one side to the other, nothing seems to be easier. We have learned to call something a "walk in the park" when nothing could be easier. But behind such a blind mechanical movement rests a whole lot of faith: that when I raise myself to move forward--momentarily giving up my stability and for a second challenging gravity--I will not fall or tumble or hurt myself, and that I have simultaneously moved nearer to where I want to be. That's a lot to ask for, if you think about it. One needs to only trip to upset that faith. And we trip either because something trips us (that unseen rock, that camouflaged crack, that nasty obstacle)--or, as often enough, we trip ourselves. And we trip ourselves initially and for the most part when we are afraid, afraid precisely of falling. So we become careful, diligent and mindful of where we go and what we step on. But alas it is that attentiveness itself which may trip you, and the whole thing of walking suddenly becomes tragic.

Self-consciousness, at least too much of it, will always get you in trouble. It is the same with knowing. If living were walking, then life should be a "walk in the park." For those who think too much, however, nothing could be more difficult. They have lost the ability to trust the ground which is supposed to break one's fall. Their lives have been upset by either this world or the next, having welcomed doubt as a guest that will never leave the chambers of their heart. For those who cannot but consciously watch themselves, nothing is as painstaking and dangerous as waking and living. Each day is a torment, each moment resting on a prayer he no longer believes in. Why pray when you cannot even get through the day?

Sometimes philosophy gets in the way. When thinking begins to overrule acting, when self-doubt paralyzes courage, or when philosophy starts disrupting an unexamined but happy life--you know what I am talking about. I can no longer see the beauty of an examined life, a belief that I romantically embraced in the past. What I now know is that people who live first before they think are generally happier. They have easier and more peaceful lives because they are able to do what they wish without all the drama and delay thinking requires of ponderers.

I have committed to the flames the idea that I am blessed or better than most because of my talents and abilities, if I have any, or more so my luxury, when it comes to reflection and insight. I realize that when we get down to it, when it's a matter of rolling up your sleeves and facing the world's ugly truths (or indifference to all truths), or when all of a sudden a life is at stake, wisdom fails to live up to its high name. "Philosophy," says honest La Rochefoucauld, "triumphs easily over past and future ills; but present ills triumph over it." Wisdom betrays you when you need it the most. It plays a silent game when you summon it in those crepuscular moments in your life. Like a phantom or a ghost, Lady Philosophy visits you only at night. To be consoled by philosophy already means you have lost your battles. Brave victors of this earth have neither the time nor the need for philosophy. Now that I think about it, what is absurd is that men who are prone to mistakes are those who delight in thinking. You won't need philosophy if you always get it right; no need for an investigation if a crime did not take place, an autopsy when what was wrong was evident from the beginning, or a debriefing when a tragedy was addressed in time. Wisdom, they say, comes late. But sometimes late can be too late that it hardly would matter.

Knowledge, Kierkegaard says, only has use if it is able to guide action. But taken in itself and without a view for something higher than it, and even if it affords one a spectacular and speculative view of the whole (as in Hegel), knowing can be superfluous--or not actually possessing the premium all philosophers have given it. For Kierkegaard action comes before thinking, and freedom overtakes knowledge, with certainty as the real starting point as against doubt (which was the sign under which modern philosophy began, particularly and obviously in Descartes). In Kantian terms, the first question or (What can I know?) should really be the second question (What ought I do?), or perhaps even the third (What may I hope?). As he says in Journal:

"What I really lack is to be clear to my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except insofar as a kind of understanding must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God truly wishes me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea I can live and die for."

Kierkegaard thus turns modern philosophy, particularly German Idealism as epitomized by Hegel (whom he heard lecture in Berlin), upside-down. His basic reservation against Hegel, whose dialectic ends with Absolute Spirit being conscious of literally everything (world history, society, religion, philosophy, etc.), was his, to wit, "forgetfulness of existence." Hegel does not consider particular human existence--yours and mine--in his sweeping synthesis because the goal precisely of each individual is to express himself in the universal, and become a member of  a universal Society or Absolute Thought. But such an enormous castle, according to Kierkegaard, one that is able to speculatively house all beings, is empty: no human existence can live there. Even Hegel, Kierkegaard says, only lives in a shack nearby.

Thus Kierkegaard most clearly ushers in, along with mad Nietzsche, "contemporary" philosophy, or that epoch in the history of philosophy which begins in a disillusionment with modern philosophy, leading to a break from it, and once again promising a new beginning. One such beginning would be Existentialism, of which Kierkegaard is now considered as an unwitting pioneer, or that movement which begins with existence or human life--a kind of "life philosophy"--which is grounded upon the soil of everyday reality. Nietzsche for one, though considered as a philosopher (albeit not of the academic mold), would criticize philosophy itself and its search for universal and eternal truths or the "will to truth" of the philosophers. As intimated in the citation above, Kierkegaard for his part demands that the only truth that should matter to a man is his truth: that truth which he can live for and die for, an idea he is committed to as an individual and not merely as a part of the "crowd" ("The crowd is untruth," he says) or as demanded by universal or ethical standards and ends (teleological suspension of the ethical), or better, a truth which is subjective.

Thus with the entrance of thinkers such a Kierkegaard systematic philosophy and its grand castles became undermined. Now philosophy no longer solely has for its reason for being the attainment of truth in a deceitful world, a view which was epitomized by Plato. No, philosophy again resumes what old Plato's master thought was its essence and promise: that philosophy is first a guide to living a happy life, and not the accumulation of knowledge in the world.

It is worth recalling that Socrates when faced with a question always replied "I do not know." And Socrates was known to be quite the comic. Upon drinking the hemlock, Socrates' last words to his follower was "Crito, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius" (the Greek god of healing). Meanwhile, Plato, who was then quietly grieving by the deathbed of his master, was said to have never been seen smiling or laughing.  

. . .



  1. Anonymous10/30/2010

    "Knowingness is a state of soul which prevents shudders of awe." - Rorty, Achieving Our Country, 126.

    If it does not make you immune, or distrustful, or dislodged... sometimes philosophy makes you walk on stilts.

  2. When the point is to never cease wondering. Absurd how philosophy aims for knowledge, but it is knowledge itself that kills the philosopher.

    But sometimes philosophy gets in the way of living, and makes proceeding just to darn difficult. To continue with our theme, I recall Merleau-Ponty saying that the philosopher walks with a limp.

  3. Anonymous11/03/2010

    A caveat, my friend: I ask your forgiveness if I am arrogant in my reply. This theme is particularly riveting for me, and has, more often than not, caused me raised eyebrows and spilled coffee, especially when discussed at length.

    Why should philosophy stop you from acting?

    When I read philosophy – or at least, try to – I always look at the works of great thinkers as providing edifying suggestions to life. But I never expect philosophy to give answers to all my questions, whether trivial or profound. Yes, philosophy can desensitize (or over-sensitize), dislodge, force you to walk on stilts or make you dependent upon a limp, but these are acceptable repercussions when we realize that though we are victimized by our intellectual and personal histories, we cannot just stare back and reflect. We have to participate in crafting our own possibilities, even when we are surrounded by oddities flagrant in the absurd ordinariness of our lives (like domineering mothers who want you to finish your MA and assert independence, but will probably become depressed when you leave. Or bad professors, decorated with PhDs and all, but are nothing more but quacks. Or lazy students. Or corrupt governments and broken ambitions and all that jazz). We owe it to ourselves – not to philosophy – to elevate our understanding, so that our encounter with the world is more meaningful. But to expect philosophy to do more, to summon it when you are at the edge? Ah, this is not its burden or the burden of Heidegger or La Rochefoucauld or Twain; it’s yours.

    Joseph Campbell says that one sure path into the world runs along the printed page. I believe him. I find happiness in books (and films) and conversations, and these guarantee me an adventure each day, and they promise me more so when I age. If they were taken away from me, arguing this luxury as futility, and that victory belongs to the warrior and not the writer (or the reader, or the saint) – then my life (unexamined and all) will be bland. And I will hate myself for ceasing to think more and desire more... especially when we are all entitled to our own distinct victories.

    I hope I do not sound as if I am defending Sophia’s helm like a fanatic, for I do not owe her that. I just do not want philosophy to be regarded as the cause of paralysis – especially when it is the reader himself who appropriates the metaphors, who chooses the chapters, who picks up the kind of books she prefers to read and the characters she falls in love with. It is futile to blame a genre, to blame the loftiness of the imagination, when it is the person, that man or woman anchored onto the soil of the earth, who has to configure his or her life. And I don’t want others to shun philosophy for careless action, for mindlessness, for lack of self-reflexivity, for banality, maybe for everything that Hannah Arendt stands for. It is heartbreaking to hear people condemning philosophy as a fruitless endeavor… especially when you find that the most beautiful creatures are the ones whose tragedy and greatness are entwined with the written word.


    Intuition (actually, just reading your latest posts =P) tell me you’re going through a rough time. I wish you the best, and I wish you the dose of inspiration to spark that change you hope for.

  4. I'll get back to your lovely thoughts as soon as possible, my friend. Kind of awestruck, and that always requires taking one's time.


  5. Been terribly worried I may have offended your private space; rest assured, to provoke (or spite?) was not my intention.

    I'm just not very good with restraint... working on that.

    Have a good day.

  6. Not at all. On the contrary, this new 'correspondence', if I may be allowed to use the word, has been a welcome surprise for me. Philosophy or thinking, while a solitary endeavor, seeks interlocutors. And I've long been tired of mostly talking to myself here. Reeks of vanity.

    Don't worry. Self-restraint is not in my vocabulary as well. Usually what we do in the heat of the moment is true; anything that comes after, especially when already deliberated, is either a concession or untruth. Now there goes the 'philosophy gets in the way' thing again. Of course I'm exaggerating.

    And thanks, above all, for introducing yourself. Have a good one.

  7. That's good to know. =) A warm hello, the saint.

  8. Oh. And as i await your reply, I'll leave you with what I've come across with today:

    ‎"Most philosophers have spent their entire lives in intense concentration, developing and defending lines of argument that can withstand the fearsome critical scrutiny of their peers. Perhaps this leaves some mark on their faces; to that I leave others to judge."


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