What Would It Mean to Live in the Philosopher’s Mansion?

Kierkegaard criticizes Hegel. He compares him to a man who has built a fantastic castle and lives in a tiny hut on the grounds out back. Hegel articulated a marvellous philosophy. Everything is God unfolding through time. Everything is essentially perfect. Human life is a step toward this self-perfecting activity. The thinking mind is the activity of God. Wonderful stuff.

So why did Kierkegaard criticize Hegel? He had built a fantastic castle.

What did Kierkegaard mean when he said: Hegel is not living in his castle?

Hegel made compromises to keep his job like anybody else. He, in the words of Richard II, lived by bread. Felt want. Tasted grief. Needed friends.

If Hegel actually lived the life of the owner of the mansion, Kierkegaard would have no problem with him. He’d bow at his feet.

Kierkegaard made his critique of Hegel but it’s a general criticism that can be leveled fairly against many philosophers. Taylor Carman calls it the existentialist critique of rationalism.

Here is another example.

Derek Parfit put forward a theory that there are no selves. There are only patterns of resemblance and reasons. So for example, Bob’s brain was horribly damaged as in Alzheimer’s dementia. At the same moment as a molecule-for-molecule replica of Bob’s brain was created and installed in a body. That new being would be Bob. Bob did not die. He just continued.

And what if they made two Bobs? Then there would be two Bobs. Selves are not real for Parfit. All there are are bodies and reasons and patterns of resemblance.

Bernard Williams another philosopher said: not so fast.

Imagine you are Bob. You are imagining that you will get Alzheimer’s and then one of two people will be horribly tortured. Either yourself with Alzheimer’s. Or a being which is created by copying your brain and putting it in a robot body. Don’t you fear the Alzheimer’s plus torture scenario, asks Bernard? Isn’t that just two horrible misfortunes being visited upon you. Do you really not care?

Bernard says: you do care. You actually fear mental deterioration happening to *you*. Even if you claim to believe Parfit. (Possibly even if you are Pafrit — I don’t know.)

Bernard Williams is leveling the existential critique against Parfit’s rationalism. He may claim to think he is not his actual body — that he is a pattern of resemblances and reasons that could be instantiated in millions of copies. But he doesn’t. Like Hegel he has built a magnificent palace (called “Reasons and Persons”) but lives in a shack somewhere out back.

Which raises the question — what if you build a magnificent palace of philosophy and do live there.

But what would that look like?

Utter fearlessness for one. He would not care about his personally safety or reputation. He would live the life of somebody who actually felt he was an expression of an infinitely powerful God.

Can anybody do that? Maybe some. But the existentialist critique of philosophy amount to: don’t kid yourself.

If you are not living in the mansion don’t describe the mansion as your reality.

Because it is not.

And if you fall into the habit of imagining that you are in the mansion, that dream will hold you back. It will blind you to the actual painful compromises and failings of your life — that if corrected could help you live better.

Promote you from a shack to maybe, a bungalow.


The Heartless Child

Father got sick and Uncle Josh said not to go to the asshole doctors at the clinic but instead go to his doctor, Mark, who worked with chakras. Father lay on a green massage table in Mark’s office listening to the droning lilting music. Mark came in in shorts and passed his hands over Father’s body, then asked him to sit up and hold his hand as he held various essential minerals in small glass tubes against father’s chest. He diagnosed an imbalance of the heart chakra and struck a tuning fork and sent him home making him promise to have fun and avoid sugar, caffeine and red meat, and at two o’clock in the morning Father died.

It had been a strangulated region of intestine that burst giving him peritonitis. There were two boys, Leland and Mordred, and when Mother asked them “Do you miss Father?” Leland said yes and Mordred said no, and Mother said “You have no heart.”

Mordred knew she was right. Even when the woman he bought coffee from in the Syrian store became his girlfriend, and they lay together on the mattress after sex, when she asked him what he was thinking about and he told her the story, she said “That makes sense.” “I want to have a heart.” he told the woman. “I’m sure you do.” she said. But she gave him to believe that a heart was not the sort of thing you can get just by wanting.

You might think he went on a quest to get a heart, and if this were a story you would no doubt be right, but this really happened, and in real life, people don’t go on quests. They just get old. The heartless child became a heartless man. But while, when he was a young man, there were various friends and girlfriends who would care about the fact that he didn’t feel and make much of him, trying to coax him to feel, or grieving in various histrionic and restrained ways for his lack so as to make him feel things, now that he was middle-aged nobody cared. Do you care if the man who examines your financial portfolio or arranges for insurance on your house, or cleans your front porch has a heart? The fact is, although the cynic might say — oh you would prefer he didn’t so he gets his job done — the cynic is wrong. The truth is it doesn’t even occur to you.

This is what happened with Mordred. Nobody cared if he had a heart or no. Those people who lived in the house with him were not his wife or children, although they sometimes spoke as if they were. They didn’t care. The mouse that lived in the basement that he left sunflower seeds for didn’t care. The spirea bush with its glorious bouffant of white flowers didn’t need him to have a heart as long as he watered it. The galan soga didn’t care if he felt as long as he let it alone.

In the winter the snow melted beneath his galoshes, whether he had a heart or not. In the spring the sun shone orange on his closed eyelids and warmed his scalp and was happy to do so. In his ears his blood beat. Strangely enough, even Mordred’s heart didn’t care if he had a heart. It beat all the same.

“Obviously you have a heart.” said the woman who came to pick up the old bottles from the back porch when he had his stroke. “Your mother said that to you to protect herself.”

“From what?” Mordred tried to say, but he couldn’t.

“People do that all the time. They say when you have a kid it is like your heart is wandering loose in the world.”

“Loose in the world? I’m the least loose thing there is. I am fastened to everybody. I am fastened to everyone. I don’t even have a reflection to look at — everything is nailed down.” he tried to think. But he couldn’t.

The spring Mordred died the monarch butterflies were passing through the property. The people handling the estate sale had no idea but they were dipping their tongues in each individual flower that made up the spirea, gathering fuel for the hundred of miles journey ahead of them. The nectar made every cell sing. Down in the basement the mouse had babies, and further down Earthworm ate earth and made a vortex in the soil, seeking its hermaphroditic mate. Through the moistness it sensed her and she sensed him and they were close. It had five hearts and its tears were wet.


Through the Brass Tunnel

Batty and Slink-o-Slink were stuck at the bottom of the canyon and the Ghost decided to kill them with water. Batty could fly away but he didn’t want to abandon the Slink. “Go see if there is any way to get out.” said Slink. Batty flew to the top of the room and looked at the ceiling. “Go fast!” said Slink-o-Slink. “The room is filling with water. I’m going to rust. And even though you can fly once the water level reaches the ceiling you will drown.”

There was a lamp that had a base, a stick and three bulbs and Slink-o-Slink wrapped himself around that in a spiral to escape the rising level of the water. It was very hot and he felt himself burning and corroding. “Did you find anything?” he called to the Bat. “I did. ” said Batty. “It looks like the entrance to a tunnel. I will grab your top end with my feet and pull, but I might fall because I don’t know if my wings are strong enough. If I fall we will both fall into the boiling corrosive water and die.” “You have to try it.” said Slink-o-Slink. “I’ll let go and you flap really hard.” The Slink let go and the Bat flapped really hard. It felt like the weight of the slinky spring was going to pull him down into the boiling acidic water. But the Slink swung his body back and forth so the swinging momentum helped Batty’s wing and he was able to catch on to the end of the metal tunnel with his jaws and pull his friend up into the tunnel.

Inside the tunnel it was extremely hot and the burning fumes of the acid burned their nostrils and throat. The bat had to wrap his body with his wings and drag himself along which was difficult. The Slinky was stretched out from when he had been hanging from the lamp and swinging back and forth to give him momentum. The sharp edge of the metal where it was stapled together gave the Bat a cut. Blood cam out and it got on Slink-o-Slink. He dragged himself along.

After a mile they got to the opening. There was a gas fire where the machine that the Ghost had built burnt everything that came out the tube. He had put that there so that nothing could escape. In fact, nobody could escape because if they stayed in the room they would get killed by the water but even if they made it to the brass tube, which was difficult, they would get stopped by the fire. They didn’t know what to do. The Bat thought he could have the Slink on top of his body and fly through the fire. “It will burn up my wings and I won’t be able to fly but then I can just drag myself from now on and that will be okay because our only alternative is to stay here and die when the acidic water reaches the top level of the room and floods the tube.” “No.” said the Slink. “I have a better idea.”

He went back into the room and swam down into the boiling acidic water and grabbed a large wooden spoon from the drawer. This time his body had been so stretched out from before that he was able to hold on to the top of the the tube with the edge of his wire and reach down with the other end of his wire all the way to the drawer and grab the spoon. He stretched himself all the way down the tube and grabbed the spoon and whipped himself together and threw the water into the fire. It sizzled a little but did not go out. He did it again, and then again, and then again, and the fourth time the fire went out.

The slink was stretched out to almost be like a wire but the bat was able to coil him up again so that he looked basically like a spring but with three parts that were stretched out so he wasn’t fllat, but he could still move. They went past where the gas was shooting out but it wasn’t on fire any more and jumped. They landed on the Plain of Rocks. There were pieces of the other people and animals and robots and machines that had been killed by the Ghost. They were all dead except for one Armadillo who had been underneath a plastic bag by accident that protected him when the Ghost poured poison on them all to make sure that they were dead.

“Can I come with you?” said the Armadillo.

“Yes.” said the Slinky and the Bat said yes too. “We need to explore this area before the Ghost comes back.”

They pulled the Armadillo out from under the plastic bag which was weighed down with three rocks and they ran away across the Plain of Stones. The Ghost did not come back for a long time because he thought for sure they were dead.

But they were not. They discovered an amazing machine.


Cross Purposes

I was having dinner with Roubini and the topic came up of people who are at cross purposes with themselves, and he said, to my surprise that he could think of more examples of this than of people who are simply going towards their purpose with every step, and never drawing away from it with the next one. Think of the defenders of religion who oppose the progressive because they think their progress will lead to chaos, and fail to see that the willingness to risk chaos in the pursuit of progress is the sign of the religious. Think of the famous case of the man who works to some day enjoy life and never does. Think of the man who marries the woman because she brings freedom and spontaneity to his life and re-makes her into his slave. Think of the lover of beauty who takes beauty back to the bank-vault in his mind and makes it mundane. And think of the millions who in their pursuit of calmness and satiety work themselves up into a ravening delirium. I sometimes wonder if we are the most perverse beings born under an innocent star or the reverse, said Roubini.

Innocent beings born in a world that demands perversity?

Precisely he said draining his Arak. It is not we who are cross, but our purposes, which are so twisted that the only way to pursue them is to fall back. Look at this Arak. I want to live my life, so I kill myself glass by glass. Maybe I’m crazy, or maybe death-in-life and life-in-death are our only choices.

You speak in riddles, Roubini. I said. You did when we were in junior high together in Miss Krilov’s math class. And you do today, half a century later.

I am only confusing when I try to make myself clear to you, Kaplan. Said Roubini. When I try to make myself clear to anybody else I am entirely clear.

You’re clear to them, Ferda?

Clear as this glass he said and made his glass go ting! by striking it with his spoon. Like so: ting!



And why is that, Ferda? I asked him when he left off ting-ing.

Because they are so confused, said Roubini. The more I try to think about things clearly and say what I have to say clearly the more I confuse everyone. Including myself.

The bottle was almost empty so I took it in my hands and then forget almost — it was empty. Roubini, my friend, I said, supporting myself on his narrow shoulders as I lifted myself from my chair. Roubini, things are so confusing, the only way to see them clearly is to be confused ourselves.


Slime Beast of the Central Attic

“We will always love you.” said Josh and Sandy to little Maria but then the mosquito bit her and she caught the illness that turns you into a slime beast, and they didn’t know what to do. The doctor said that in this situation parents have no choice, and they sealed up Maria in a plastic storage container and put her up in the attic, and then had a baby who was much better and forgot about her. She felt very bad, and very sorry for herself, but also sorry for her Mommy and Daddy because they had never asked to have a slime beast for a baby, and who could blame them for shutting her up in a storage container. For the first couple of years she got smaller because she had nothing to eat but herself, but then? Then she discovered a way to put a little tendril out and use it to lure spiders and eat them, and she became happy and strong.

“What’s that?” asked Oliver when he heard the sound from the attic. Oliver was a beautiful little boy, and it was cute the way he mispronounced words — for example instead of marzipan he called “Mommypan” — also his hair was cute, and when he stood there in the playpen in his onesy pyjamas that had rocketships on it holding his hands up to be lifted up, that was a third thing about him that was cute. I’m sure there were more things about Oliver that were cute than those three things, but three is honestly plenty. The sound in the attic sounded like if you had an immense quantity of jam — say about four hundred and eighty pounds of it and you gathered it up like a wave and then smashed it against a locked attic door. “Oh that’s nothing.” said Josh and took the key out of the attic door and put it on the night table next to the bed where he and Sandy slept and made love, and then they went out of the house to dinner at the Smiths.

“You idiot! You idiot!” said Sandy and hit her husband in the chest with her fists when she saw the state of the house. Somebody — Oliver! — had unlocked the door to the attic and had left a trail of silvery slime from the attic down to the second floor and then down to the bedroom closet where Sandy kept her jewelry and Josh kept his money and his expensive watch and his gun and then out the house. The gun was gone, the jewelry was gone, Oliver was either dissolved by his sister’s gastric juices or gone.

Actually he had left with her. She hired a tutor for him using the money she had stolen and they rented an apartment above a Chinese grocery store on Division street, and he became skillful at useful arts — printing, the preparation of legal briefs, the invention of useful machines — and earned more money which he used to buy cuttlefish and scungilli for his sister. She became very big and very happy and Oliver became a young man with great prospects who would go out disco dancing and had many girlfriends. It was easy enough when they were asleep to remove an egg or two and they hardly noticed. The eggs gestated within Maria and formed dozens and dozens of babies.

When these babies grew up they became useful citizens and all voted the same way and since there were so very many of them they elected among themselves the tallest to become mayor.

On the day of his inauguration Josh and Sandy came. “We’re so proud, we’re so proud.” they told the reporters. By this time Maria had taught herself to smile using the hundreds of teeth she had collected from the river floor, and she did.

Afterwards as she was undressing to go to bed in the immense porcelain bowl, Oliver, now a successful attorney asked her why she had smiled. Why not tell them? If you’re angry why not say?

Ah, Oliver said the slime beast, what good would it have done? At some point you’ve just got to let it go.