Could surprise be the cure for the world’s decay?
Michael Burnett, the well-intentioned American missionary and doctor, tries literally all possible means of persuasion. He asks, presses, appeals, orders. And nothing.
Rambo is uncompromising. Although he has a suitable boat and he knows the river at least as well as the trajectory of his right hook, he responds plainly and clearly:
“No way, I’m not taking you to Burma, it’s too dangerous.”
When it finally becomes apparent that no argument will work, the resigned Burnett walks away towards the group of volunteers, who are silently awaiting the results of the turbulent conversation. In conclusion, he remarks bitterly that it’s because of this kind of attitude that the world is not changing and is still so messed up.
“Fuck the world,” Rambo replies.
Heraclitus of Ephesus, a Greek philosopher living at the turn of the 6th and 5th centuries BC, equalled Rambo in eccentricity and misanthropy, according to Diogenes Laërtius, the first historian of philosophy. But at the same time, he had the polar opposite relation to reality. As Aristotle writes, one day Heraclitus was visited by some prominent guests from abroad, who found him sitting by the fire. They stood for a moment, expecting that he would invite them to a more prestigious part of the household. But he calmly offered them the seats beside him and announced, pointing to the fire: “the gods are here [in the fire] too”.
The word used by Aristotle, which is taken in translation to mean ‘fire’, also means ‘toilet’. But contrary to appearances, this is not so important. Regardless of whether Heraclitus was sitting by the fire or by the kitchen stove (as the matter is posed in contrast by the eminent expert in ancient philosophy Pierre Hadot), or maybe near a toilet, there is absolute agreement as to the meaning of this scene.
Heraclitus was implying to his guests that even in the most simple and banal things – in a kitchen stove or an ordinary fire – and even in things commonly considered low, dirty or even repulsive, such as a toilet, the gods were present. This means there is something extraordinary and remarkable about them. Something that can become the beginning and the subject of philosophical reflection, deep contemplation, an attempt to understand fundamental and eternal matters.
In one of the milestones of modern religious studies, A History of Religious Ideas, Mircea Eliade characterizes religious experience as a hierophany, or “manifestation of the sacred”. This is a simple but basic thought: we do not invent what is sacred, or at least we do not consciously invent it, but we encounter it as something completely independent from us, something external. In archaic forms of religiosity, anything can be a sacred object – from a stone to wood, to the sky or the ocean. One characteristic feature of meeting with the sacred is the particular emotions that are triggered. First of all – as noted by another great philosopher Rudolf Otto – a sense of fascination and horror at something that is different from everything to which we are accustomed.
However, when Heraclitus speaks of the gods in the fire, or even in the toilet, he has in mind a completely different experience. Its core – as Aristotle will elegantly express later, and this bon mot will remain in use for at least the next 2500 years (now that’s what you call an influencer!) – is by no means fascination mixed with fear. Nor is it a sense of being caught up by something bigger, tearing up everyday matter.
What it is, though, is surprise.
A man looking at the world, at first the closest and simplest things, then the increasingly distant and more complex, experiences a particular sense of extraordinariness associated with the fact that something exists in the first place. And the fact that it is as it is, and not something different. Regardless of whether it is a toilet, a kitchen stove, or yet another film about the adventures of John Rambo. And this, in turn, awakens the need to learn, to investigate both the direct and the more distant causes of various phenomena. Philosophy is one way of investigating, but it is conducted in a systematic way, according to certain rules.
Contrary to the contemporary image of this discipline, associated with tedious and over-intellectualized digressions that are detached from reality, at its very core lies something far from rationality and abstraction that is in no way tedious. The surprise that we feel in encountering the world, which arises when we realize that we have something rather than nothing around us, is in fact a deep passion, not an intellectual concept. It comes from a sense of the extraordinariness and beauty inherent in existence itself, and only later provokes systematic reflection. At the basis of the latter there is something almost erotic, amorous. That is why this particular type of activity was called ‘philosophy’. This expression combines love and wisdom, passion and reflection, impulse and consideration. And it is not only according to the ancient Greek philosophers that it expresses a fundamental, universal component of the human experience. “To be surprised, to wonder, is to begin to understand,” wrote José Ortega y Gasset in the mid-20th century, well over two millennia after Aristotle.
And yet, Rambo is not surprised by anything anymore, and his line about what to do with the world – though expressed using a word with undoubtedly erotic connotations – has little in common with passion. On the contrary: it expresses indifference, resignation and despair. So, has much changed since the days of Aristotle? Did the recently announced ‘end of philosophy’ arise from the fact that the world no longer activates these old emotions in us today? Doesn’t it delight us, make us wonder, or make us want to know it in depth? Have we, the inhabitants of the era called late modernity, lost the capacity for passionate surprises – and is that one of the reasons for today’s economic, cultural and political crises?
At first glance, Rambo is not particularly representative. This expert in the taking of life, a reliable killing machine, has already seen so much cruelty that he has totally lost faith in any causative power of human actions. Given these experiences, this past, this insight into the terrifying aspects of life, he has every right to be bitter and cynical. And although in the recently released fifth part of the series it is shown once again that he cares about something, Heraclitus and Aristotle themselves would probably leave him in peace, not torment him with stories about gods hiding here, there and everywhere. Let us leave him in peace as well then, at least for a little while.
Let us deal instead with ourselves, the inhabitants of late-capitalist culture. People equipped with the best cognitive and research instruments in the history of humanity, possessing unparalleled knowledge about reality and the possibilities of influencing it, and with an unprecedented (though, of course, still merely vestigial) insight into the secrets of the functioning of our own bodies. And thus, it would seem, predisposed as never before to cultivate surprise in ourselves, to celebrate the extraordinariness and splendour of a world in which at every step, even in the kitchen stove or the toilet, “gods [live] also”.
And yet, I’m willing to bet that no one reading these words has a sense that these are emotions that are somehow present in the common experience. Why is that? Is it only because they have basically always been a kind of luxury? Aristotle said that to lead a truly philosophical life, you need peace and quiet. It is no coincidence that slavery existed in ancient Greece. In order for Plato and Aristotle to indulge in selfless reflection on the essence of things, to blithely cultivate their passionate relationship with the world, an army of anonymous, enslaved people had to be working somewhere in the background, satisfying the philosophers’ basic life needs.
On the other hand, both the West and the East have seen the development of highly elaborate spiritual and contemplative practices whose natural environment was radical asceticism. The last thing you could say about the existence of the Buddha – after he had ceased to be Prince Siddhartha, of course – or Saint Francis, is that they were surrounded by luxury and abundance.
Then again, the average inhabitant of modern Europe and the US (not to mention developing countries) neither enjoys a sense of full material security, nor chooses to give up all their earthly obligations and possessions in the name of the greatest good, which is not from this world. Therefore, if we are currently busy, above all, overcoming the uncertainty that results from our unsteady economic situation, from the inability to predict what will happen tomorrow, from helplessness and lack of access to basic goods, then we can hardly be expected to have the time and strength to marvel at the extraordinariness of existence, can we?
Especially since, unlike ancient Greece, today’s reality – infinitely described, catalogued, mapped, photographed, filmed, overexposed and turned inside-out – may at first glance seem quite unremarkable.
It is a fact that science has removed from the world the mythical wonder, the mystery, the area of the unknown previously so perfectly inhabited by the most unusual creations of human imagination. The Age of Enlightenment – when the foundations of modern rationality were formed – and the subsequent socio-economic and ideological changes resulted in the collapse of the so-called great narratives. Mythological, religious and philosophical stories about the world as an integral whole that can be coherently described and understood.
At the beginning of the 20th century, first psychoanalysis, then the theory of relativity and quantum physics, dismantled our naively (as it turned out) stable visions of human subjectivity and the universe. From then on, they began to seem disturbing, unknown, and contrary to the principles of common sense. Acts of destruction were wrought by the great forces of totalitarianism, ruining our belief in our own moral nobility and the possibility of building a paradise on earth.
In the 21st century, new problems appeared on the horizon. The development of technology and the overloading of information and stimuli that goes with it, the economic crisis, progressive loneliness, the disintegration of close ties, the epidemic of depression and other forms of mental suffering… All this means that fear and helplessness are among the most fundamental emotions today, rather than the joyful and hopeful wonderment of which Aristotle wrote.
So maybe we have more in common with Rambo, with his resignation and lack of perspective, than we first thought.
Yet we should not abandon Heraclitus. A return to his deep intuitions could be the first step towards overcoming this sense of hopelessness and depression. At least, this was the view of American psychologist James Hillman, who believed we should re-assimilate most of the Greek legacy. According to Hillman, the current situation of Western culture actually has vital origins in questioning the obvious presence of the gods in everything that surrounds us. Put simply, the development of Western thought and civilization – which also brought an infinite number of good and valuable things – led us to a state of general collapse and a sense of total solitude.
Or rather: alienation. From the world, which we perceive as a loose conglomerate of detached parts, behaving in a way that is understandable only to a handful of experts. From one’s own ‘I’ – once rational and convinced of its moral purity, today torn apart by various symptoms and emotions that seem to be immersed in chaos at least as powerful as that prevailing at first glance in the universe and in society. From community – fragmented, disintegrated, composed of individuals constantly competing for work and material goods, focused only on survival, and at the same time longing for closeness and love. Finally, from the natural environment, exploited and destroyed for years, which has suddenly turned against us.
This landscape is the perfect breeding ground for fundamentalism. Worldviews that give a false sense of confidence; answering all possible questions; clearly defining right and wrong; offering an illusory community and, equally illusory (since it is based on blind faith and subordination), a panacea for overwhelming loneliness and alienation. However, if it were possible to indicate a panacea for all fundamentalism – which is ultimately the source of violence – then it would surely be philosophy. Especially originating from that original experience, which Heraclitus expressed so emphatically when he spoke to the mysterious group of foreigners.
Hillman, however, is well aware that there is no simple return to the consciousness of the ancient Greeks, in whose experience the gods were as real as everything else around them. For Hillman, the path that can lead us to rediscover the extraordinariness of existence – and thus to feel like an integral part of the world, and not just a random mix of genes that has emerged from nothingness for a brief moment – is beauty.
According to Hillman, we have lost touch with our awareness of beauty, our care for the aesthetic dimension of life. We operate in ugly cities, ugly interiors, and this is one of the main sources of our suffering.
This is not a thesis on individualistic aesthetes who can afford to surround themselves with beautiful things. This is a very precise political programme. Care for aesthetics should be part of public policy, not just a luxury available to the few. Only when we relearn how to perceive and cultivate the beauty in what surrounds us will we once again be able to see there the gods whose presence was so obvious to Heraclitus.
Metaphorical gods, of course, not literal. Expressing some kind of peculiarity and extraordinariness inherent in existence itself. The terrifying and fascinating, but above all, the infinitely strange nature of the world – on the one hand, already perfectly described by science and literature; on the other, revealing still further areas of the unknown. Or rather – the more we can say about it, the more mysterious it becomes. Because, with each subsequent discovery, we can see more and more clearly how much we are yet to know. This alone is undoubtedly astonishing.
Just like the fact that John Rambo ended up being one of the most important figures in this text. If he found out, he’d certainly be surprised. At last.
Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster