Yesterday at around 8am the skies were blue but for the rice paper of cumulus floating in various corners of sky, also over the moon that was still visible but had chosen that strange veil the auspice of today's weather, oppressed with mist and heavy rain. It is the sign of the fog of humanity when it is heavy with disaster; what happens when we are tested to the core of our beings. It is unpleasant, until afterwards, sometimes only much later if one fails the test, when one may agree with the Latin maxim, res severe, verisum gaudium: the severe task is the real joy. Or, one might prefer the way Kurt Hahn put it, "Your disability is your opportunity."
But of course he was the one who was proud that there was nothing new about his schools and their operation, quoting Prince Max as saying, "In education, as in medicine, you must harvest the wisdom of a thousand years."
The wisdom of a thousand years if we look back to Plato's Republic as Hadot does in Qu'est ce que la philosophie antique?, considers the philosopher powerless to impact the corruption of the city chooses to practice philosophy alone or with the like-minded. Even Marcus Aurelius expresses his own feelings of powerlessness before the lack of comprehension and inertia of his subjects.
Yet, according to Aristotle, the practical life need not be exclusively focused on "practical" actions - as we do today. It need not be directed towards
others, either. Rather, "practical" may also be conceived as the
activities of the soul (viz., θεωρέω) and thoughts that give rise one to another (Pol.).
The word θεωρέω is derived from look, behold, and is often used in philosophy to denote contemplate, consider - though I find it sometimes translated as science, probably shorthand for speculation to be proved. It is a view, θέα, declined from θεά, conveying with it memories of goddesses.
Through reasoning - observing, contemplating, speculating - we hope to be lifted up from the fog of existence, true to the promise of Athena, goddess of clouds and wind, the first female a male wished to bear in his own stomach. Though the goddess of war, she is also the goddess of wisdom, which she resorts to first before bearing arms, averse to needless combat. Wisdom, too, is promised by philosophy that brings order to understanding. For example, we are taught by Aristotle (Met.) to look at each animal with the conviction that it came from a perfect seed, and recognize appropriately, therefore, its place in the bigger picture of things (also Ep. 66).
There is stable pleasure that may relieve us from suffering (Rep.). Philosophy is a defense against chance (Ep.
16): "If you live according to
nature, you will never be poor; if you live according to opinion, you
will never be rich." According to nature is Ruskin' pseudonym, whether
he took it from Epicurus or the Stoics. He examined morals and nature and retreated to Switzerland when he felt misunderstood. "There is no unhappiness
for those whose habit has brought them back to nature." (On Prov.)
Aristotle also teaches that there are two sciences, one of the perishable and changing, and that "other" science of that which is eternal (Met.). Arithmetic (D.L. 8.1.48; Met. 987b) compels the soul to reason about the abstract (Rep. 7); maths, unchanging, are contrasted with the everyday world, imperfectly approximate. Mathematics is privileged as a means to knowing, though it is through dialogue and desire that man can make the speech-experiments that may lead him to the essential, unutterable, but desired. In this respect, we may consider the full range of the meaning of the word κόσμος, meaning universe, order and rhetorical ornamentation.
While the body weighs a person down, philosophy brings freedom, urging man to look at nature, directing it from the earthly towards the divine: "This is its freedom,
this is its escape ... Do you ban me from an investigation of nature,
drag me away from the whole and confine me to a part? ... Shall I not
inquire who is the artisan of this cosmos?" (Ep. 65.16-20). "These bodies, which you imagine have been strewn about for no other purpose than for ornament, are one and all at work ... Tell me, would you not be captivated by the sight of such a mighty structure even if it did not cover you, guard you ... and permeate you with its spirit?" (Ben.) To reach the author, we are to examine our conscience (Ep. 71.16).
If man has but a "slippery hold" on knowledge (Ben.), he can move towards it. This knowledge of human limits reminds me of Epictetus writing, "I wish to do this only if destiny permits". Lévi-Strauss, too, in our time, echoed this thought, thinking it "naive" to call man master of his destiny. I wonder how much fog is created by the unnecessary strain of thinking one must control everything instead of learning how to be spontaneous, i.e., not forcing circumstance but learning to put it to use. "I do not know whether I shall make progress;" writes Seneca in Ep., "but I should prefer to lack success than to lack faith."
If the going gets tough, there is always the humble contemplation of the stars that requires no practical results but brings happiness, freedom, morals, character.