The Consolations of Philosophy
A Boethian-Hegelian rumination
Mattia Preti, Boethius and Philosophy oil on canvas, c. 1680, Malta, public domain
I feel a little guilty at deriving so much intellectual stimulation from the events of the day. It is fascinating to watch my beloved country fall apart. What is a calamity for the citizen, however, is grist for the philosopher's mill. Before he is a citizen, the philosopher is a "spectator of all time and existence" in a marvellous phrase that comes down to us from Plato's Republic (486a). And if the philosopher is an old Platonist who has nearly had his fill of the Cave and its chiaroscuro, he is ever looking beyond this life, and while in no rush to bid it a bittersweet adieu, is not affrighted at the coming transition either. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings at dusk. The old Platonist owl lives by the hope that the dusk of death will lead to the Light, a light unmixed with darkness.
National decline is not just grist for the philosopher's mill, however; it is also perhaps a condition of understanding as Hegel suggests in the penultimate paragraph of the preface to The Philosophy of Right:
When philosophy paints its grey on grey, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy's grey on grey it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only at the falling of the dusk.
Daughter of Jupiter, Minerva in the mythology of the Greeks is the goddess of wisdom. And the nocturnal owl is one of its ancient symbols. The meaning of the Hegelian trope is that understanding, insight, wisdom arise when the object to be understood has played itself out, when it has actualized and thus exhausted its potentialities, and now faces only decline.
When a shape of life has grown old, philosophy paints its grey on grey. The allusion is to Goethe's Faust wherein Mephisto says
Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie,
Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum.
Grey, dear friend, is all theory
And green the golden tree of life.
Philosophy is grey, a "bloodless ballet of categories" (F. H. Bradley) and its object is grey -- no longer green and full of life. And so philosophy paints its grey concepts on the grey object, in this case America on the wane. The object must be either dead or moribund before it can be fully understood. Hegel in his famous saying re-animates and gives a new meaning to the Platonic "To philosophize is to learn how to die."
In these waning days of a great republic, the owl of Minerva takes flight. What we lose in vitality we gain in wisdom.
The consolations of philosophy are many.
On the other hand, it ain't over until it's over, and as citizens we must fight on, lest our spectatorship of all time and existence suffer a premature earthly termination. The joys if not the consolations of philosophy are possible only in certain political conditions. We are not made of the stern stuff of Boethius, though we are inspired by his example.