Archive for the ‘philosophy (short)’ Category

Three biblical stories, two in the Old Testament ——specifically in Genesis—— and one in the New Testament, might aid us in trying to understand, however imperfectly and sketchily, the issue of brotherhood in the Bible. The first story is the well-known story of Cain and Abel; the second, the well-known story of Joseph; and finally, the third story, the well-known story of the parable by Jesus of the Lost Son. All three will be presented solely by way of puzzles and questions. In this regard we ask hesitantly: Could it be that the possibility of friendship according to the Bible is very limited in the case of brothers for some very precise reasons? But, why would this be so? Don’t citizen parents actually put all their conjoined strengths into bringing up their children to be good to each other, to love each other?

Story 1: Cain and Abel, Genesis 4

Why provide a second fall immediately following the most foundational of all falls by Adam and Eve? Why indeed are the primary models of brotherhood Cain and Abel? Why is the story so astonishingly short? Why did God not accept Cain’s offering even if it was the first? Why is Cain so wronged and upset by God’s not accepting his gift? Is it because he is the first born? But, what is it that the first born feels entitled to that feeds such angry responses? Moreover, why does he seek to kill his brother? Why not simply punch him a few times? What is the nature of such blinding rage? What is the fundamental importance of Abel’s being a “keeper of flocks” as against Cain’s being “a tiller of the ground”? Is there something about nomadic lives that is more akin to the nature of the divine? Would it be its greater independence from the earthly? Or is it that nomads are much more in need of the presence of the divine as they move around a “homeless” world? Does it have to do with the fact the Abel deals with animals and their care? But then again, why can’t Cain see that God himself actually speaks to him in the story and not to Abel? In the same vein, why is the story about Cain and much less about Abel? Why does it matter so little to know what Abel’s life was like? And furthermore, why does Cain lie to make things even worse? But if Cain knows he is a sinner, and the worst at that as a fratricidal kind of being, why continue to punish Cain with a permanent eternal sign that will mark him permanently to all on the earth? Why punish him beyond his own consciousness of his knowing he has done a terrible, spiritually self-destructive, deed? (See Appendix 1 below.) And dramatically for political philosophy as defended by Athens, why is Cain the one who actually founds the first city of the Bible, the city of Enoch? Why is the Bible so pessimistic about the political from the very start?

Story 2: Joseph, Genesis 37-50

Why is the love of Joseph by his father so connected to the varicolored tunic he gave him in his old age? Does this shed light into the relation of the beautiful and the divine? Why is it also so intimately connected to his actually accompanying his father in old age as the younger one? Does this shed some light into the commandment regarding the honoring of our parents? Is honoring our parents primarily being able to accompany and prepare them for death? But if so, wouldn’t believers also learn much from Socrates for whom philosophy is a constant preparation for dying? And, why does the Bible see it fit to show that now it is not only one brother, but many, who hate Joseph? Moreover, why does Joseph so naively express such complex dreams to his brothers? Didn’t he surmise he would be in trouble? Must faith be necessarily naive (see Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy)? And besides, what is so special about dreams and our connection to the divine in the Bible? How to contrast these presence with Aristotle’s own consideration in his prudential text on dreams? And his brothers, why can’t they appreciate Joseph’s honesty? Would they have rather Joseph not tell them anything at all, that is, not prepare them at all for God’s presence? And very polemically, does Joseph’s being selected by God shed some light on our modern democratic families? And still, why in this occasion do the brothers decide only to fake Joseph’s death? Is it because they are thinking of their father with a certain sympathy? Surely not, for their father would still think Joseph to be dead, wouldn’t he? What is so particularly appalling about Judah’s idea of selling and wreaking profit from his brother’s enslavement? What is it about our desire to have and posses material things than makes Judah lead his own family into utter dislike by God? His future generations, the creations of his creations, are somehow condemned by his avarice, aren’t they? Is this part of the basis as well for Aquinas’ powerful condemnation of usury which speaks little to us nowadays? And what precisely could anger brothers and sisters about one of their own actually being chosen by God? Why wouldn’t this be an occasion for joy? What are brothers particularly so much in competition about? Could it be that at the bottom of their hearts lies a desire to become god-like and to be recognized as such by their kin? Wouldn’t this be what Aristophanes tells us as well in the Symposium? And moving closer to our times, why did Thomas Mann rewrite the story of Joseph in so many pages in our modern context of war? And very importantly, perhaps most importantly, how to understand Joseph’s final words to his fearing brothers:

“But Joseph said to them, “do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place? And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. So therefore do not be afraid: I will provide for you and your little ones” So he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Genesis, 50: 20-21)

What exactly does Joseph mean by saying that God “meant it for good”? Was Joseph at all times aware that things would end so? Wouldn’t one apply the words “all ‘s well that ends well “ here? Is this last question simply a reflection of one’s pride? And why does he not suffer as much as Job does? What is it about Joseph that gives him such strength?

Story 3: Parable of the Lost Son, Luke 15: 11-32

Why does this parable follow the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin? Why are they so ordered? Why one must speak of losing oneself in parables? Is it because we are moving in a particular direction? And crucially, why does the lost son wish to become a migrant risking his own life? Is it because he is more like Abel than Cain, the tiller of the land? Why wish to get lost? For surely, we know what is at stake in leaving our families, don’t we? And once again, why does the brother get so angry? Why is the love of his own recognition so important to him if he has lived right beside his father all his life? Wasn’t that enough? What more could he be looking for? And again, who would be envious of one’s brother’s having suffered and despaired in solitude? Which of these two brothers would actually be better prepared to honor his parents, as is our duty according to the 10 Commandments? Would the adequate honoring of one’s parents be a compromise between the two? But wouldn’t such a compromise involve a certain strange kind of anger that is not to be seen in the noblest of honorings and loves?

Appendix 1:

For a much more developed puzzling presentation of the Bible, one can turn to Professor Thomas Pangle’s difficult, yet engaging and puzzle-creating, Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham where he touches on the life of Abraham and the sacrifice of his son Isaac. In particular, see pages 93-96 ‘The Puzzle of Divine Foreknowledge” which are three complete pages made up only of puzzles and questions. Or later on, in the chapter on “Guilt and Punishment” where Pangle writes in crucial relation to the above questions:

“But this last formulation brings close to us a final troubling question. However we are to understand criminal responsibility, what are the intelligible grounds for the overwhelming conviction that the guilty deserve to suffer for what they have done; and what are the intelligible grounds for the concomitant hope that they –that even we ourselves— will suffer the punishment that they, and we, deserve. For guilt betokens sin or vice; and sin or vice are either genuinely and severely harmful, in the most important respect, to the very soul of the criminal; or else they betoken an alienation of the criminal from the source of meaning for him as a being designed to devotion. Why, then, is it appropriate, why is it sensible, that such a crippled and or alienated being receive, in addition to and as a consequence of his corruption or alienation, further harm or suffering. Why is it so terribly important for us that to the suffering and mutilation of the spirit that is entailed in being unjust there be added extrinsic bad consequences for the perpetrator?” (PPGA, p. 101)

Pangle keeps alive, in critical contrast to modernity, the enriching yet tense debate between Athens and Jerusalem.

Appendix 2:

For a striking story of how Socrates views, at least minimally, the relation between brothers see Memorabilia 2.3 where one finds an astonishing conversation with Chaerecrates who has fought with his older brother. To begin to even try to understand this story, one would have to reconsider what Socrates considered to be a philosophical life and its relation to the citizens who inhabit the agora. Without such a perspective, the story seems merely to involve a strange naivety. And we know for certain that Xenophon, a general, was anything but naive.

But perhaps the true nature of brotherhood is best exemplified in The Republic where Glaucon and Adeimantus —both Plato’s brothers— encounter Socrates dialogically on the question of justice and reveal dramatically to the reader their unique and differing characteristics as regards the political and philosophical life. Perhaps it is by looking at the question of justice that at least some healthier brotherhoods may come about.

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Prepositions are funny and usually very short linguistic creatures. We all know them and had to learn them growing up. They include such minute samples as: in, on, up, down, over, under, through, among many others. Many of us remember learning them from children’s TV shows such as Sesame Street and the like. There we would see funny puppets moving all over the place to try to make us understand by actually visualizing what each of these little particles meant. And somehow we did learn them, but we are now so focused on actually using them both in speech and in our daily actions that we rarely stop to think about their important role in opening up for us the structure of our very own being. For it would be unbelievable if such little words could open up such deep dimensions, wouldn’t it? Perhaps reflecting on prepositions might be a clear way of learning to position ourselves before ourselves with greater resolve. For indeed prepositions are quite unique in that they might just reveal how ignorant we are of ourselves and the possible conditions underlying who we are.

But first a story, for many puzzles come to our lives unexpectedly if only we are open to their appearance. How did I in fact come to see their importance? It was only made possible because of the fact that I became by chance a language teacher and had to actually teach these little words to many students who knew how to use them in their own language but —–through a wicked twist of fate—– had to learn them once again in another one! So when I started teaching them I would just simply give some visual examples of how they worked and tried to explain, as best I could, how they worked. I would say things like: “See that dog there? Well, it is jumping OVER the fence. Can everyone repeat that!” And I would hear them repeating this and congratulate myself on being such a good teacher. How little did I know.

If you have been a language teacher, or taken language courses, you know prepositions are some of the first linguistic elements taught. I assume it is so because we think they are just so easy to grasp. However, the more I taught them, the more I was puzzled by different aspects regarding their nature. The more I tried to teach them, the more I came to realize how little I understood them. Besides, some students really had a tough time seeing how they were used and what they were for. And furthermore, many students would ask some tough questions for which I knew the correct answer ——namely, use such and such a preposition in this case—– but I did not know why! And yet all of us, teacher and students, had already learned them many years ago in our own languages when we were just kids. This is a truly odd state of affairs; knowing one knows and hardly being able to express what it is one knows and how one can be sure of actually knowing it. It was somehow as if by growing up we had misplaced ourselves, losing a kind of understanding which was once quite open even if now remote.

What were these difficulties? Well, they went something like this. Have you ever thought about how to explain what is the difference between being “under” a tree and “below” a tree? Or, more dramatically: it is certainly quite different to say that “John is resting under the tree”, than to say “John is resting peacefully below the tree”. Now, I know you know which is which if you are an English-speaker, but tell me what is the difference, how to explain it to a student and why is there such a profound difference in meaning? For, in one, John is actually alive; in the other, John has departed the living! I will help you out a bit, in a similar way we usually say we are “under” the umbrella and not “below” it. Or, think about this case. Do you know what is the difference between the basic spatial prepositions “in” and “into”? I mean, why do we say “Natalia is in her house “, in contrast to, “Natalia is going into her house”. I will help you out; just look at the verbs. Prepositions are quite strange creatures: some of them go hand in hand with what are called static verbs, others only make their appearance with movement verbs.

But it gets specially worse in English because in this language prepositions sometimes go hand in hand with verbs so that together they create what are know as “phrasal verbs”. These are easily used by English-speakers, once again, on a daily basis. But for English students ——those immigrants you come across on your daily moving through the positions of your life—— they are a very deep and prolonged nightmare! In this respect, perhaps if one knew one’s prepositions one would be more readily positioned as regards immigrants themselves. For immigrants truly become displaced, they lose their known positions and headings and must have the strength to learn these new prepositions which assume a different kind of ordering. Immigrants know what it is to become a stranger in not always welcoming lands. To this type of disorientation we shall return, but for now back to the grammar of things. Let me try to exemplify: can you imagine what it is to try to learn what is the difference in meanings between: put up a wall, put up for sale, put up with someone, put up a fight, put through (on a phone), put on a sweater, put out (a fire), put in a good word, put off (as in ‘postpone’), be put off (by my friend), put forth (an idea), put money towards, put a terrible event behind you, put away (for life), put your point across, etcetera …? And all this just with changes in one verb! And did you know that there are actually complete dictionaries ONLY dedicated to these type of verbs? I guess you start to get the idea, but I just wanted to put it down in this blog.

But that is not all; the puzzle to which I am alluding is not merely one dealing with writing, it enters the domain of speech and thus can open or close dialogue itself. In English prepositions do not have a marked accent when said. Thus, for instance, when you speak you usually do not say: “He went INTO his room”, placing a heavy stress on the preposition itself. On the contrary, prepositions in English do not normally have a stress to them. No wonder students from other countries have such a tough time listening to them; they are actually almost invisible and only faintly noticeable! This is why for non-English speakers trying to understand the difference between: “He walked in his room” and “He walked into his room”, is like noticing the difference between two very similar birds for those of us who know very little of birds. Of course, we as teachers actually emphasize the preposition itself and say: “He walked INTO his room” placing ALL the emphasis/stress on the preposition itself. And we congratulate ourselves on helping out so much. But here is the problem, no English speaker actually speaks like that! So remember, when you come across an immigrant in your daily life, just try to remember that your impatience with his/her speaking abilities may result also from a lack of self-understanding on your part. Just maybe, if we knew more about our own language, we would appreciate the difficulties in learning it for others. This type of understanding would allow for greater patience and shared activity.

But even if interesting, all these are only the secondary reasons for my interest in prepositions. What these previous experiences reveal is something which has been known for a long time, that we use language without actually being conscious of it. I find this simply amazing, that we as humans are so bright and yet hardly reflect upon how amazing these capacities are. Why would this be so? One reason could be a certain kind of fear, a fear of wonder. For we might think that if we reflect upon the obvious, suddenly what we were used to doing without question comes to a halt and strange uncomfortable puzzles arise. However that may be, the main point about prepositions is that they function in a very special way. They provide us with a certain orientation in the world in which we make our lives; they provide, in a sense, a connection with the world we inhabit. In this respect they are indeed the most spatial elements of language. Prepositions allows us to find the where of our motions, allowing us the possibility for locating who we are in the context in which we move. To end this post I will provide you with four examples of the reflective possibilities underlying such a discussion:

A) Elsewhere I have argued for a reconsideration of the family by using five of these prepositions: 1.the “downward view” of the family, 2. the “upward view” of the family, 3. the “outward view” of the family, 4. the “inward view” of the family, and finally using spatial imagination, the 5. ‘roundward view” of the family. You can find this discussion here: Link

B) It is philosophers who have seriously taken up the issue of our spatial structuring of the world. It is perhaps professor Charles Taylor who brings to light the issue of our orientation and the use of spatial metaphors better than anyone else. In his Sources of the Self he writes regarding the self and its constant use of spatial metaphors in the construction of its narrative identity:

“what this brings to light is the essential link between identity and a kind of orientation. To know who you are is to be oriented in moral space, a space in which questions arise about what is good or bad, what is worth doing and what not. I feel myself drawn here to use a spatial metaphor; but I believe this to be more than a personal predilection. There are signs that the link with spatial orientation lies very deep in our the human psyche. In some extreme cases of what are described as “narcissistic personality disorders”, which take the form of a radical uncertainty about oneself and about what is of value to oneself, patients show signs of spatial disorientation as well as moments of acute crisis. The disorientation and uncertainty about where one stands as a person seems to spill over into a loss of grip on one’s stance in physical space.” (SotS. p. 28)

In our everyday dealing with things we move along; but then things happen. For instance, we feel our friend has utterly betrayed us. And then what was taken for granted, namely, that we were moving along just fine, comes to a halt. It is here that the normal structures of orientation are radically undermined, those structures which previously were truly out of sight. It is here that the spatial metaphors come to the fore: we are truly set off course, we feel that the rug has been pulled from right under our feet, we really feel that we have no direction to our lives, we have no North, we say that we are stumbling as we go, we confess we can’t get “over” it, we feel paralyzed, we perceive going outdoors as threatening, among many others. The spatial self-understandings, including our prepositions, which once gave us no thought suddenly must be reconsidered and given a new and deeper understanding so that we can reorient ourselves by means of this new insight. To not be able to reorient ourselves thus is excruciating for many. Perhaps by coming to see how prepositions open up the world of our interactions will allow us to more easily find new pathways and meadows in which to be. Perhaps you can allow those immigrants we spoke of above to find these new pastures much more readily. Help them with their prepositions so that they may position themselves much more readily within your unquestioned coordinates.

C) And then there is the case of maps, which I have discussed in another post as well. link As in the use of prepositions we use them and move in and through them without seeking or apparently needing any kind of reflective guidance. We know where we are going and, if in doubt, we also know we know how to use them. So, how could one go about seeing what is behind these maps, if in fact we move through our spaces as fish move through water? I once asked a young boy how fish took a shower if there were already in water. He was puzzled. I laughed a bit, but I feel the same way with regards to our notion of space. In this respect I laugh a bit at myself. If we are “immersed” in our spatial being in the world, how to find a way to surprise ourselves? Here, recourse to history is one fundamental possibility.

You look and find everything all too familiar. THAT is part of the problem. But do you have a sense that there is something very limiting about this representation of space? “Well, “ you could reply, “how else can one go around places then?” And I wonder worried, “so you do not see it”. Well, I must not give up and try to allow you to see what is so strange here. Take a look at another period in time in which other types of relations to space existed. Take a look at some early medieval maps:

Paris Map 1250


Chronicles of St. Denis 1364-1372


Now you at least see that OUR maps are profoundly different. You look a bit startled. And of course you laugh a bit and say to yourself: “Poor people they were so ignorant then, they just simply did not have the technology to map out correctly their maps.” And I agree, in part: I mean, look at those little houses, well, was that drawn by children? Did artist Paul Klee draw these maps?

But maybe, you might just start to ponder whether it is YOU who does not see what those maps take for granted. A bit worried, you start to realize that the medieval maps were not guided by the x-y coordinates of the Cartesian grid. In contrast, early medieval maps represent the world in terms of the world’s significance to the inhabitants of these spaces. What mattered was not the distance between the houses, but the houses; and if a given place had a special significance, well, it was actually drawn to stand out. The church, the castle, Prince amelo14’s retreat, were much larger than they actually were in reality. And besides, you might just start to see how your modern eyes are connected to a secular way of seeing the world. The Chronicle of St. Denis is a mapping which involves the stages of the life of a Saint. Remember what we said at the start of the Muslim pilgrimage? Our maps certainly have no sense of any pilgrimage whatsoever; their function is to get us around as quickly and efficiently as possible. Harvey summarizes well the issue: “Maps stripped of all fantasy and religious belief, as well as any sign of the experiences involved in their production, had become abstract and strictly functional systems for the factual pondering of phenomena in space” (249). Charles Taylor, the architectonic foundation of my Ph.D. thesis, adds: “A way is essentially something you go through in time. The map on the other hand, lays out everything simultaneously, and relates every point to every point without discrimination”. (176)

And we wonder how come we have never seen this before. What else might we not be seeing? What else might we not even want to open ourselves to seeing? A firm conviction of the Socratic uneasiness which sets itself up against those who simply know they know, motivates me to write this post, to face up to my own ignorance of myself and of the spatial world I inhabit daily.

And finally,

D) we now turn to perhaps the single most famous philosophical example of the attempt to understand what lies behind our everyday use of prepositions, that of Heidegger’s famous expression “Being-in-the-world”. In his preliminary sketch regarding the spatiality of Dasein he allows us to regain a certain understanding of prepositions and the type of primordial understanding of spatiality which our technologically-oriented world lacks. He writes:

“Nor does the term “Being-in” mean a spatial “in-one-another-ness” of things present at hand, anymore than the word ‘in’ primordially signifies a spatial relationship of this kind. (1) ‘In’ is derived from “innan” —“to reside”, “habitare” , “to dwell”. ‘An’ signifies “I am accustomed”. “I am familiar with”, “I look after something”. Being in is different from being alongside the world as primordial structure of Dasein’s Being.” (BT, Part I , II , 12; pp. 79-80)

For what is revealed to us in coming to a primordial understanding of the minute preposition “in” is that what we thought was primary, namely that it allowed us to represent the world of objects around which we moved, is merely a secondary function. To “be-in-the-world” goes beyond a representational organization of things out there; properly understood, “to-be-in-a-place” is to open said place to its always recoverable presence. To be in a place allows us to dwell there beyond the mathematical configuration itself. We all sense this when we speak of the difference between being “in a house” and being finally “at home”. For surely there is much more to being at home than the walls. In this respect, inhabiting a space goes beyond our physical presence in certain coordinates; surely we can use our GPS technology to move around coordinates, but hardly to inhabit the world in which alone we can be. Space is in this sense liberated from the mathematical, and recovered in its most profound dimension, that which links it directly to our mode of Being. Such liberation can only come about by coming to a realization that geometry and architecture and even linguistic grammar are only made possible because of the spatial structure of our “Being-in-the-world” itself.

An architectural example of such spatial liberation can be seen in Louis Kahn’s astonishing conversation with a brick:

“And if you think of Brick, for instance,
and you say to Brick,
“What do you want Brick?”
And Brick says to you
“I like an Arch.”
And if you say to Brick
“Look, arches are expensive,
and I can use a concrete lentil over you.
What do you think of that?”
Brick says:
… I like an Arch”

I like arches too. Prepositions might be a bit like those bricks who want to be arches. Prepositions want to be poems and essays and letters, and even blogs! But you might wonder, “How could so simple a thing as a brick speak?” But then again, haven’t we come to realize together how simple prepositions seemed to us at first? And just as Kahn spoke of a spirituality to bricks, we can speak of a more important spirituality to prepositions. For surely they are closer to us, closer to our spirit. We truly may find ourselves “in’ and ‘through’ them. Recovering our lost connection to such simple words will hopefully allow us to reorient ourselves more decisively. Maybe, just maybe, now prepositions can better speak to us.

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Comentario a Eduardo Escobar Octubre 29 de 2007 – CONTRAVÍA “La suerte está echada”

Si bien encuentro en sus columnas una fuente que permite siempre recordar la posibilidad critica de la poesía y la literatura, en muchas ocasiones debo confesarle que me muevo en contravía con las últimas palabras de esta columna, prefiero “no ser justo y gritar un poco”. Sin duda su pesimista presentación de lo político en el ámbito colombiano invita a que quienes nos dedicamos a la filosofía política reconsideremos los fundamentos de lo político. En eso estamos de acuerdo. Situaciones de caos generan caóticas aproximaciones, pero la pregunta prudente es considerar si dichas aproximaciones agilizan el desorden generalizado. Y así nos movemos entre el desorden y el orden gracias a sus agudas pero sesgadas aproximaciones. Desafortunadamente hasta ahí llega el camino que caminamos conjuntamente; sobretodo porque el camino que pareciera usted recorrer hace de ciertos caminos con una poderosa tradición histórica una simple ilusión. Caminando el camino de lo político se nos revela que tal vez era mejor ni arrancar. Pero bien, ¿cuáles son los puntos centrales en los que difiero frente a su argumento y su poder poético-retórico (en el buen sentido del término)?

1. En su columna encuentro una confusión fundamental que hace que las palabras pierdan mucha de su fortaleza critica. Hay una confusión elemental entre la visión moderna de lo político —–tal y como aparece desde Hobbes (y de cierta manera en Maquiavelo)—— y la visión de lo político tal y como aparece formulada en la filosofía política clásica, en particular en la obra de Aristóteles, pero también en Platón, Jenofonte y Cicerón. Es por ello que usted puede indicar con demasiada facilidad que “Es extraño que este antiguo arte de lobos, la política, goce de tanta reputación de cosa buena.”

No podemos entrar aquí en detalles, pero la política como un “arte de lobos” aparece así formulada en el Leviatán de Hobbes. Ese mismo proceder, que gira alrededor de un supuesto realismo político, puede verse también en la obra de Maquiavelo El Príncipe (aun cuando la posición de sus Discursos es mucho más compleja.) Y es de anotar que el gran contrincante intelectual tanto de Hobbes como de Maquiavelo es precisamente Aristóteles. Al igual que usted, los modernos Hobbes y Maquiavelo ven en la idea de la política “como cosa buena”, algo irreal y utópico.

Ahora bien, es claro que Aristóteles y el pensamiento político clásico ven en lo político no simplemente la posibilidad de un bien realizable, sino además la condición misma de nuestra naturaleza como humanos que por naturaleza somos seres políticos. Y dicha postura Aristotélica está alejada tanto de un realismo político como el de Hobbes que permite lo que sea, como de un utopismo radical que retóricamente incita a lo que sea. La recuperación de lo político desde los clásicos permite considerar la profunda necesidad de lo político para los humanos, y a la vez, permite visualizar las peligrosas limitaciones que dicho ámbito posee. En la filosofía política aristotélica encontramos el camino para una recuperación de la real honorabilidad de lo político y, a la vez, una cierta trascendencia de lo político por medio de la filosofía política. Confundir esta compleja opción con el simplista modelo de Hobbes le permite a usted “ganar” la partida con mayor facilidad.

2. Y añadido a este primer punto se encuentra en su columna una actitud ambivalente que resulta perniciosa tanto para la educación reflexiva de una ciudadanía política fuerte que cree en lo público, como para la generación de una acción moderada interesada en la sanación de la realidad política misma que a lo largo de la historia ha caído muy por debajo de sus reales posibilidades. Es así como, por un lado la columna parece invitar a los ciudadanos comunes y corrientes —–como usted y como yo—— a seguir luchando por la democracia y por el honor: “Y con filosofía o sin filosofía, a los ciudadanos comunes como usted y como yo solo nos resta seguir en la brega de sobrevivirnos creyendo, para no perder por completo el honor, que no todo es desvergüenza. Hay aquí un impulso hacia lo virtuoso en lo político, hacia el bien político fundacional, a saber, el honor. Es por ello que los representantes políticos se denominan en todas las democracias como honorables (así, como usted nos recuerda una y otra vez, muchos no alcancen la altura de dicha designación).

Pero por otro lado, el balance de la columna parece dejar a los ciudadanos con la sensación de que esta honorable frase realmente sobra. Usted resume este otro polo pesimista con su fortaleza poética de esta manera:

“Y en los muros de la esquina bajo el aguacero se deshacen sus retratos.”

Pero lo que dichas palabras desconocen es precisamente una comprensión más profunda, más sentida, y más amiga de lo político. ¿Por qué? En primer lugar, porque el deseo fundamental que motiva al ser humano político, el deseo de su inmortalización a través del reconocimiento público, es sin más, hecho trizas. El aguacero deshace toda cara política; deshace todo recuerdo de los grandes líderes. No quedan retratos. Además el aguacero parece deshacer toda acción publica ya que ninguna acción pública dejaría huella.

Pero por el contrario, algunos ciudadanos sí recordamos ciertos retratos con absoluta admiración; recordamos que sí hay Churchills y sí hay Abraham Lincolns, y sí hay Bolívares, y sí hay Lara Bonillas. (Y recordamos también que Bolívar “el hombre político”, y Bolívar “el personaje de Gabo” no son, afortunadamente, el mismo). E igualmente las reglas mismas de lo político en nuestras democracias hacen evidente que al menos una parte de la ciudadanía sí cree que hay retratos dignos de reseñar y honrar. Tal vez nuestro país ha olvidado esto, pero otros países tienen ceremonias con este único objetivo. En este sentido, desde el lenguaje y la realidad de lo político, es claro que en medio de aguaceros surgen –—y pueden y deben surgir—- quienes tienen la cara para enfrentar la tempestad y así ser recordados. Tal vez desde otros lenguajes todo eso parezca mera ilusión.

En segundo lugar, se da en su columna una crítica, ligada a la anterior, que hace de la opción de la sabiduría practica —-virtud aristotélica fundamental que caracteriza a los grandes líderes políticos—- algo nuevamente ilusorio. Dedicar la vida a la consecución de dicha virtud parece ser una gran pérdida de tiempo:

“Todos tienen una propuesta para salvar el presente, y sienten sus derechos para aliviar los desórdenes del futuro financiados con los huevos de oro de la gallina suculenta del presupuesto.”

La única sabiduría que nos queda es la de la astucia guiada por el dinero, motivada por el poder, limitada al ahora y gozada en lo privado. Sus palabras reducen así la posibilidad de considerar que, dada una educación política adecuada, en efecto sí hay y puede haber algunos entre nosotros que en efecto estén mejor capacitados para tomar la decisiones políticas requeridas.

Pero lo que es más pernicioso aún; estos dos puntos que he mencionado, en su conjunto parecen hacer imposible el crear las condiciones educativas de motivación tanto para generar líderes políticos honorables guiados por cierto amor crítico al bien público, como para generar una ciudadanía que crea seriamente en las posibilidades de lo político. En cierta medida, podría uno decir que, si así son las cosas, no resulta extraño encontrar que Platón en la República busca exiliar —–bajo una interpretación—– a los poetas de la discusión de lo político!

(Un tercer punto a considerar es su alusión a la idea de la muerte de Dios en nuestra época, sobretodo gracias a la impresionante obra de Nietzsche: “Pero el hombre moderno está condenado a confiar en los políticos, a resignarse a lo imperfecto, porque Dios ha muerto.” Al respecto cabe preguntarse si Nietzsche ofrece una respuesta coherente a la noción clásica de una religión cívica a la base de una república saludable. Pero debido a la extensión ya vergonzosa de esta respuesta, tendrá que dejarse esta pregunta para otra ocasión.)

Espero que estos puntos hayan sido expuestos de tal manera que inviten a cierta moderación política en su concepción que parece ser radicalmente apolítica.




La columna de Eduardo Escobar Octubre 29 de 2007 – CONTRAVÍA “La suerte está echada”, dice así:

“A los ciudadanos como usted y yo nos queda seguir en la brega de sobrevivir. (more…)

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Susan Sontag, the metaphors of illness and the militaristic understanding of the ill. (On Illness 17)

It is not easy to find readings regarding illness by patients who are humanists and ill themselves. This is easy to explain, in a sense. First, one must have been involved in the humanities for many years. Second, one must have fallen seriously ill. Third, and very importantly, during that period of illness one must have had enough physical and mental energy to be able to reflect and to write about the process of illness itself. The latter is no easy task; just try writing when you have some kind of physical pain. Or think of this common occurrence which, now that I have been seriously ill, makes me smile. When one reads the biography of many famous and important people such biographies usually end something like this,

“and then, quite unfortunately, such and such illness came suddenly into his life and suddenly he lost all his genius and his creative powers, and then the most brilliant mind became totally lost ..…, and then died in the year such and such ……” .

Why do I smile? Because such a narrative is highly incomplete, untrue, oversimplified and dangerous. Why is this so? Primarily because this kind of narrative seems to me to be a bit like the story of the monster that lives under our beds. But more importantly, it continues separating creativity and the most fundamental elements of our unique human condition, including our suffering, our physical fragility and our mortality.

Don’t you think it is odd to actually believe that somehow one produces less and becomes less creative and thoughtful PRECISELY when one comes to learn first-hand of the vulnerabilities which lie at the core of our humanity! For surely the greatest writers did not write about such topics by having simply READ about them (though reading about them will prepare us like no other exercise once they become present in our lives, or in the lives of those around us.) On the contrary, it is —-in part—- by living such moments that one’s creativity is energized and one’s potential reflection actualized more deeply. “But I have never gotten ill”, you might respond. “Good for you!” I say, “just do not forget that if this is so, those around you who fall ill will need even more of your help and practical wisdom when dealing with situations of crisis.” Hearing such narratives makes me think that in our world we are in constant fear of illness for we can only see it as the beginning of the end, rather than the end of a shallow beginning. Suffering makes no sense to us, and the sufferers much less so.

However that may be, the fortunate appearance of these three conditions is the main reasons why Susan Sontag’s Illness as metaphor is such a unique and precious book. It is a book for those seeking to make somewhat articulate that which is mostly held as unspeakable; particularly so in our age which sees in death and in the immobility of illness “the other” against which we must continually fight and guard ourselves from.

In this post, I will merely point to some of the reasons why this confluence is so unique. At least four elements stand out: 1. Sontag allows for insight into what it is for an ill person to write DURING illness itself; 2. Sontag points out the dangers underlying the kinds of metaphors we use when dealing with illness, metaphors which are unavoidable given our nature as self-interpreting animals (on this, see Charles Taylor who has also had great impact in the area of nursing); 3. She crucially reveals the most damaging of these metaphors, namely, the military metaphor as it is applied to illness in such a way that ironically who I am and my body become sworn enemies leading, in turn, to a dangerous dualistic tendency which emphasizes a separation from myself, demeaning me silently; and finally, 4. she points to one crucial interest in the connection created by political thinkers between the illness of the body and the illness of the body politic. I will briefly point to each of these dimensions. (more…)

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Choosing a doctor and knowing yourself.

In selecting a doctor, or better yet, in selecting doctors, it is inevitable that one will end up looking at oneself and at who one is. In my case, I have selected doctors both from traditional and alternative traditions; more importantly I came to be with doctors who suffered the transformation —Socratic in essence—- which leads from traditional medicine to alternative views, not simply of medicine, but of the human condition itself. The reason for my going these roads, though it is no easy road as both types of doctors have great suspicion of each other’s paradigm, was in part my deep belief in the importance of bilingualism with which I have been involved as ESL teacher for more than a decade and as citizen of Canada, one of the few official bilingual countries in the world.

In this respect, patients from the humanities are in special need of doctors who have been deeply involved with the humanities for only then can a mutual and healthy dialogue towards understanding, and maybe even recovery, can ensue. The work of doctor Pellegrino is here of great importance; see, for instance, his aptly titled “Educating the Humanist Physician; an Ancient Ideal Reconsidered. However, patients from the humanities must beware that the likelihood of such coincidence is not high and when illness is thrust upon us, there is little time and energy to make such connections.

One of the doctors I visited later in my illness told me very seriously I had to choose between one or the other of these treatments, and that it was my responsibility whatever I did. To this I answered calmly: “If this is so, if indeed one has to choose, then I have already made my decision a long time ago.” ( I had made my decision the very day I decided to dedicate my life to the humanities, 20 years earlier, when I was absolutely healthy.)

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On the unconscious needs underlying the relation between the ill and their caretakers.

One of the difficulties which lies at the basis of much possible conflict between the ill and caretakers is this. Most of us seem to unconsciously desire in our lives someone who will be there for us in the worst of times, those times where usually no one would want to be with us! For supposedly, this kind of thinking goes, everyone wants to be with you when you are rich and beautiful and young and powerful. One of the most dramatic examples of such a desire can be found in the work Like Water for Chocolate link where the youngest daughter cannot marry because tradition holds she MUST take care of her aging mother. Having many children is a way of assuring one’s future security.


And in this same vein, this is why marriage vows include for better and FOR WORSE. For, according to the “normal” way of seeing things, being there in the worst of times must be somehow enforced as NO ONE would want such a thing! This kind of thinking is highly distorted. However, one thing is true, being in those situation which include the “for worse” part, specially in the case of illness (but think also of the case of unemployment) does not usually mean that BOTH parties find themselves worse off. Usually when one person falls ill, the other does not; when one person is unemployed, the other is not.


When one of them actually falls ill, then the ill person actually might find —or at least he thinks he has found—- what he deeply desired, namely, someone who unconditionally loves him. But on the other hand, the caretaker finds something radically different, not only that someone does not care for him —for many caretakers are left alone to care for their loved ones—- but also deeply and unconsciously they come to realize that no one will be physically able to take care of them if they in fact become ill! This helps to understand the anger felt by the mother in Like Water for Chocolate. (Not to mention the meeting of other needs which will not be met, such as those regarding sexuality, the possibility of a family, ….)


The only path towards ameliorating the caretakers condition in this respect is for her to come to a clear understanding of how problematic such a deep desire for having another take care of her —–even when the situation does not involve illness— actually is. This holds true for the ill person herself as well. For we humans, as Aristophanes’ discourse in Plato’s Symposium tells with fine comic revelation, are deeply afraid of living a life of true self sufficiency, and by this I mean, primarily, a life of reflective self-sufficiency. In this respect, one can say that caretakers and the ill are in need of a serious reconsideration and understanding of those deep desires which in normal conditions remain constrained, but which in times of crisis come to the fore as they had never done so before. If unprepared for this appearance, the likelihood of growth in true and deep friendship under such circumstances is close to nil.


I think these reflections hold some of the central keys to understanding why it is that Aristotle ends his considerations on friendship —-–some of the most famous and powerful in the history of reflections on friendship—– with what appears to be a very strange question, namely: Do we need friends more in good fortune or in bad? (Nicomachean Ethics, IX, 1170a21) True happiness might include friends, but might point beyond our everyday distorted considerations of what friends are. And however that may turn out to be, one should and must be one’s own best friend.

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Why caretakers must reflect on the complex desires behind their care-taking.

One of the main reasons as to why reflective self-transformations among caretakers is so difficult lies in the deep need caretakers have of perceiving themselves as doing good to others. Each caretaker must seriously reflect on the nature of such a troubling human need. If no such reflection has been undertaken, the possibility of having a self-critical spirit as regards the caretaker’s own actions becomes more and more difficult to achieve.

It seems the main reason for this dilemma is as follows: the caretaker gives meaning to the narrative of her life through caretaking itself. In this same respect we all admire such individuals for what we (and they) perceive —though this is part of the problem— as their altruistic sacrifice for others. (see Aristotle, NE, Book I) However, this perception only solidifies in the caretaker the sense of their deserving recognition as regards their alleged sacrifice for the other, specially for the pains and troubles one has to undergo —supposedly— in the taking care of the ill. I say allegedly for it would surely be odd to choose a way of life in which one thought of one’s actions solely as a sacrifice! Such a choice would never allow for true happiness in either the caretaker, or the ill person herself! And once such a mental attitude is set firmly, the chances for such a person to reconsider the very foundations of their reasons for doing good become harder and harder to bring forth to the light of criticism. And if the person who seriously asks the caretaker to reflect on their own unquestioned desires and needs is the ill person herself, then sense of ingratitude seems to skyrocket!

This is in part one of the reasons why ill people must hear recognition demanding phrases such as “well, at least you are not in the street, at least you have me, …….”; one of the reasons why most doctors –though not all– will be disappointed when their patient asks for a second opinion; one of the reasons why traditional doctors will become very defensive when spoken of alternative possibilities, telling their patients that if they do so “it is their responsibility, ….”; one of the reasons why families/couples/parents will constantly argue how much sacrifice the ill are for them; one of the reasons why convincing others that illness is not a burden is almost impossible.

Under such conditions, which unfortunately are the norm and not the exception in our human condition, the ill must be careful and have the tools to counteract —even if they are in a condition of total physical disadvantage—- such tendencies which lie in the deepest, most troubling and most ambiguous human needs. The ill must never forget it is they who are at a disadvantage, not those who in their health do not have the courage to undergo a reflective critique of their needs.

In plain language, there is a saying in Spanish, constantly recovered by Doctor Payán, that says “El camino al infierno está hecho de buenas intenciones.” (The path to hell are made through good intentions.”) In literature a dramatic example of such a process lies in the short story entitled “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1899) link by Charlotte Perkins Gilman which tells the story of a husband and ill wife and which should be obligatory reading for ANYONE involved in the caring of the ill. Finally, and most importantly, it is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics which shows the path towards an understanding of such deeply problematic needs, those needs associated with the goodness presupposed by those who hold the life of virtue as the crowning life for human beings. It is little wonder to find Aristotle arguing that true happiness can never be found in such a sphere (Book X). The life of total dedication to virtue leads only to a secondary kind of happiness.

In other words, the possibility of seeing such dilemmas is inaccessible to caretakers unless they happen to come into contact themselves, or through friendly others, with the critical spirit that guides the liberal arts education which follows the Socratic spirit of courageous, serious and continuous self-reflection on the dangers permeating our deepest, most unconscious, human needs.

(Note: Of course, another extremely powerful view of this dilemma is that of Nietzsche and his genealogical deconstruction of the good. I fear however, that such an approach is so dramatic that most caretakers will not be able even to perceive its importance.)

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