Tuesday, April 24, 2012

the philosopher as flame

I will be teaching this summer. I have never taught before and I will meet a new self this year: myself as teacher. Meeting new people can be both exciting and intimidating (even when the people you meet are your own selves), and I do feel both nervous and curious. 

One of the reasons I am so pleased with my prison and exile theme for the class is that it foregrounds the subversiveness of philosophy and of philosophers. Philosophers are trouble-makers! They are jailed, killed, exiled; their books are banned and burned. Of course there are exceptions and certainly times change, but philosophy is not what one chooses if one wishes to be safe. Challenging authority, exploring the limits of the powers of thought, attempting to face what must be the case--these are very dangerous indeed. Mental equivalents of polar expeditions. It could destroy you. If you neither fear nor face destruction, then perhaps you have not gone far enough.

And last night I read Holy the Firm. Annie Dillard does not talk about philosophers. She is a teacher of writing (or was, then) and her role as teacher surfaces a few times in this tiny book. I read these paragraphs and thought, yes. Yes, this is something like what I want my students to see. Can I put these paragraphs in one of my sermons lectures?
There is no such thing as an artist: there is only the world, lit or unlit as the light allows. When the candle is burning, who looks at the wick? When the candle is out, who needs it? But the world without light is wasteland and chaos, and a life without sacrifice is abomination. 
What can any artist set on fire but his world? What can any people bring to the altar but all it has ever owned in the thin towns or over the desolate plains? What can an artist use but materials, such as they are? What can he light but the short string of his gut, and when that's burnt out, any muck ready to hand?
What can a philosopher use but materials, such as they are? What can any philosopher set on fire but his world? This is what we see in the punishment of the philosophers. Prison, exile, and death are the repercussions for setting the world on fire. 

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