The Warmth of Metaphysics
On the comfort of what is not here.
Epistle no. 4
July 8th, 2022
565 Alnitak Rd.
“You cursed danked whole in the wall, where even the sweet light of heaven breaks wanely through the painted glass! I’m cooped in heaps of worm-eaten books thickly laden with dust, with sooty papers fastened all around, extending to the vaulted arches– retorts and boxes strewn about with pyramids and instruments, the stuffing of ancestral rubbish– This is my world! I must call it a world!”
– Goethe, Faust
From the Greek “ta meta ta phusika”, which means ‘the thing after the physics’.
Originally denoting its place in the sequence of Aristotle’s works (it being after the book of Phusika). Later the Latin, metaphysica, adopts the literal meaning of the word. The study of first principles. The study of meta-physics; the framework of physics itself. The study of what transcends the physical– what is abstract.
I have been knee-deep in the work of Benedict de Spinoza for the last couple of days. And, I have to say, I have a love-hate relationship with the really abstract– the capital ‘R’ rational, and metaphysical– obtuse philosophers and the writing that they have left us behind. It is a curious thing, then, that one of my first philosophical loves was René Descartes.
I didn’t read Descartes’ Meditations until fairly recently, but I remember coming across a short biography of his when I was younger and have since been acquainted, though shallowly, with his epistemology. His thought experiment of the ‘evil demon’ was the first thing outside of what we think now as the sciences– particularly astronomy, biology, and physics– that really ‘blew’ my mind. There are few things in my life that have affected me so severely, and that have sparked my curiosity so potently, as the proposition ‘cogito ergo sum’– I think, therefore, I am. The heat from that spark has not only combusted with strength, but with incredible longevity as well. There are not many things that will keep your philosophical engine running, especially not on fumes, and yet metaphysics has kept mine sufficiently incensed for years.
Apart from being superb intellectual fuel, metaphysics, and reading philosophy in general, has proven to be a refuge from what is. It may sound somewhat neglectful, or maybe bookish and misanthropic, but the modern day-to-day, for someone like myself, can be an exhausting and frankly a frightening, boring, or overwhelming experience. It is very funny and ironic that the remedy that I have found for the complexity of the world around me is to find comfort by diving into further complexity. However, this time, in the world within.
And, here I have to say that ghost of Nietzsche nags at my shoulder. I think of his priestly caste and imagine that he would have thought of me– someone who is very much concerned with philosophical pursuits and that of letters and literature– as belonging to that class of life-deniers. After all, he would say that I am meant to be out there seizing life and exercising my will to power. But, books have never lost their charm, and careful study always repays my efforts proportionally. The outside world, I must confess, seems to be a place irreverent to these rules of logic. Because, even if exert myself towards a goal, it may be the case that my striving is not repaid and that my action produces no desirable re-action.
Mine may be a simplistic way of seeing things. I am trying to conform nature to rules that may just be unreasonable to expect. And, I have to add that philosophy, though abstract, is always about the human experience in one way or another– if only by virtue of the fact that it is the product of human minds. However, what I’m really trying to hint at here is that the pursuit of such things as metaphysics, which we may be weary of for being withdrawn and insular, may as well provide us a with a safe haven. Retreating into the palace of abstract thought is dangerous wager. Yes, it is insular, but that means it is as much a fortress and a moat as it is a convent and a prison.
Metaphysics are a grand cathedral. The great system builders of the continental tradition provide us with an incredible playing ground– a tour de force so extraordinary that we may lose ourselves in it. Their great intellectual feats inspire us to become metaphysicians ourselves– if only to understand their prodigious architecture. What I have said is as true for metaphysics as it is for poetry, literature, and philosophy in general. It seems to me the same strand runs through great poetry as it does through the Rationalists. Metaphysics is, for me, an attempt to overcome simple description or observation– laudable and noble as it is– and to apotheosize into something more.
Maybe I really am missing out on something when I fall back on thought and thoughtful work. However, it is my faithful shield. And, even if metaphysics is really dead and Francis Bacon was right, great builders will always exist. If only for their logical and poetic prowess, a wreath I lay upon their heads.