The internet, 24 hours television and things of this sort are a goldmine for the armchair philosopher, i.e. virtual bullshitter. In the past the philosopher had folk with whom he could share the deepest of longings, or if not that, he could at least find witty repartee with others. He shared the fundamental questions otherwise unacknowledged with friends, acquaintances, fellow citizens or even passersby (both men and women). He spoke as if anyone were in potential with dialectics that someone who could provide the most profound of understandings regarding man, cosmos, or god. If not always meeting such high aims, the philosopher could at least pass the time of day. Nowadays, it seems that with interminable blogging one can speak of events in Egypt or Libya with such a faux expertise as if it were merely a particular instance of the manifold of being, albeit when one so speaks it is with an expertise colored with the language of contemporary social science. It seems everyone is a philosopher. Strange days indeed. But who is listening and why should they listen anyway?

When one had other people at hand with whom one could speak about ordinary and deep things alike, eristics (as painful as it may have been, even when done with sport, skill and good humor) could be an odd beginning for an actual friendship. In such a way of inquiry and interrogation, it was always possible to seduce another with regard to the most important of questions. Seduction was possible even if it was always necessary and proper at the end of the night to let answers remain in dispute for further discussion tomorrow. In this questioning activity, as things turned up in their natural course (no doubt, this is loaded language in some circles), different opinions and even different ways of life were able to show themselves as they were. Variety was open for thoughtful examination. In such a golden age, despite our real differences we all loved each other in our potential friendship—it was a real diversity. In and through a good conversation, one could see something that was in common—even if only in outline and at a vague distance. The astigmatic image that was revealed provided a target at which one could at least take aim.

You may say that back then we lacked mature purpose (we were playing patty cake with sand castles on the beach shore as C.S. Lewis approvingly had it), but we were willing to take an argument to its logical absurdity and admit that perhaps we were not as smart as we thought we were. For male and female alike it was an experience both chastening and liberating simultaneously. We could be, as William James put it, “tough minded” while at the same time we could also freely enjoy ourselves in our intellectual pursuits. We were serious and unserious. We could live with the paradox of competing goods in tension. We had read and took pleasure in Plato, Dante and Shakespeare. But all of this inquiry and education pointed toward something called self-knowledge, which was a good in itself even if it remained a riddle, and even if at the end of the day it was not the most authoritative good or at least it was not widely considered to be the most important good. In our naivete we recognized our responsibilities.

Given such responsibilities perhaps the pursuit of self-knowledge led us to less satisfaction than we had thought it had promised. If we found ourselves still lacking in what we wanted, it was perhaps no accident that such questions compelled us also to be open to the claims of divine revelation, and the question of what ways were accounted for outside what was called unassisted reason. Instead of the question of which revelation, it rather became a question of what it in the first place means for god to show himself as law or as a person? Perhaps lacking true friends, we ended up speaking of a who moreso than a what. If we could not answer these questions, we could nonetheless say that we were believers in the who as a person. These were not open questions—they simply defined us before whomever we thought we were (they were inherited traditions to be sure, but also inescapable ontological modes). However, these unopen questions nonetheless provided a disclosure of the truth of things that was still open to the questioning and investigation of reason. We were Thomistic enough to think that one (as much as anyone else) had reason by nature, and that such reason could come to see what was naturally right. Reason it seemed, if assiduously and rigorously followed, could not refute revelation. So the question became in what ways was revelation in accordance with reason. Did revelation of a divinity and his works—one who comported with the way human life presented itself as being in its lived experience—show itself in accordance with reason? If not, then in what ways was were they different, and what did this mean for the life worth living?

Did Christianity—in its account of pathos and agape, in its claims for faith and hope—account for the best human life? This seemed to be the reason or question for us. In this mode we were obviously influenced by Augustine’s Confessions amongst other great truth telling texts. We were restless hearts. On the other hand, back in the day, we were also open to the question concerning the ways in which reason itself may have been limited in its capacity to know the whole. We knew this sounded like Kant here (or fideism), but we still recognized that at our particular time there were no easy answers in that regard.

Today things seem to be different. Out of the past I currently find myself in the position of an armchair philosopher—one whose privileged online blogging life is apparently (if experts are to be believed) denuded of “real” experience. I am one who finds the recent random news stories instructive—even in their arbitrariness. Yes, I too have read Walter Benjamin, and I too appreciate his attempts to make the idiosyncrasy and contingency of Baudelaire’s flaneur in the modern world of mechanical production the basis of something significant beyond itself. Perhaps I am an online flaneur haunting the “arcades” of various blogs and websites, but nowadays these haunts are more virtual than mechanical. Regardless, they are infinitely repeatable and they seem to lack an “aura.” Since I have become familiar with latter day versions of California new age religiosity, I find the term “aura” redolent of pantheism and gnosticism and hence something distasteful from what I consider to be a proper understanding of human flourishing. Perhaps this recognition allows for something more open eyed, and suspicious of speech regarding auras and such. But it seems to me that there is a reality to that of which I speak.

When I think more clearly about myself I must say that I don’t claim this Baudelairean mantle. I think that in its promise of personal self-construction as subversion in perpetuity—a subversive self-remaking with no end in sight—I come to realize that it expects far too much of what could be considered a decent, let alone a flourishing life. I’m too bourgeois (in a good sense) for such high modernism in terms of the fine feelings of art for art’s sake. And why must I always subvert the good that has been so generously given to me even if it is past? Mere aestheticism and nostalgia is too meager for my desire. Such modernism presents the pursuit of happiness as an end itself (even if it leads to the bitter end), and ultimately it presents a way of life that exists at the expense of happiness simply. I still foolishly seek the latter.

In spite of this claim for happiness, I don’t offer the contrary claim to happiness in the terms of the happy-clappy talk of the contemporary “everything is okay—I’m OK, you’re OK”— mantra. Like the Benjaminian flaneur I too pull headlines from the papers and make try to make witty if not prudential observations on our troubling times. Still, I recognize the difficulty involved in claiming a larger vision of the best way of life. Consequently, speaking of specific headlines as I do is probably a silly pastime (and really has nothing to do with philosophy rightly understood), and you may properly ask—who the hell are you to speak of such things in the first place?

You correctly ask, “Who are you to say what is what?” In good egalitarian fashion I agree with the spirit of that question. But let’s at least look at one recent news story which if it were not for the internet and 24 hour TV, I might have nothing to say in general. It could be a meaningless story, but let’s take a look-see.

For some of our most ambitious and spirited youth, what is called “greco-roman” style wrestling is a great competitive sport in high school and college. It requires an immense amount of self-discipline and skill. To be successful one must keep oneself on a strict dietary regimen, one must work to stay in the best of physical shape both in terms of aerobic endurance and in terms of weight training strength. Of course, most importantly one must learn various bodily maneuvers and holds in order to pin one’s opponent to the mat. It is a rough and tumble sport that requires a willingness to make one’s own body tangle most intimately with another body in a contest of strength and dexterity. After any given heat, chafing, cuts and bruises are the norm. The object of the sport is zero sum—one wins by pinning another body to the mat. One wins and another loses, though on occasion there is a draw. Nonetheless, the point is to win, and one must have strength and skill to gain victory. It is such a physically demanding contest that one must wear special head-gear in order to avoid the grotesquery of the dreaded “cauliflower ear.” It is a sport with official rules and requirements judged by a referee. It is so popular that back in the 1980s there was a decent sports-wrestling movie—a triumph-of-the-spirit type sports movie—starring Matthew Modine and Linda Fiorentino called Vision Quest.

Wrestling is eristics of the body. In this way, it is arguable that wrestling is both a great sport, as well as a motif from which we in American life can draw larger lessons about virtue and a life of discipline dedicated to something larger than oneself.

But all of this assumes that this description of wrestling was amongst boys or men with each other. As I’m sure you are all aware this is the wrong assumption to make today . Boys and girls wrestle each other these days. This story is literally the comedy of the Thesmophorizusae. It may indicate what is just, but it abstracts from the body far too much as any reader of Allan Bloom’s commentary on Plato’s Republic would recognize. In teenage boy/girl wrestling, eros is inordinately subordinate to the agon of equal political justice between the sexes. It assumes that in high school and college, the competition and the spirited rivalry for recognition between the sexes can allegedly be resolved in a wrestling heat of bodies on the mat. I’m sure you can guess where this leads. It is a good thing that this story did not become another cause célèbre for gender equality in the popular culture, despite its mention on the morning television talk shows (I heard about it on Morning Joe while putting on my socks at 5:30 am). The story more or less disappeared after its brief mention. One hopes its disappearance as a story shows an inherent decency and common sense of contemporary Americans. But is this decency and common sense true in all areas of life? Call me a sexist, but the teenage boy/girl wrestling story surely raises questions about unemployed manliness amongst men, and its increased opportunity for employment amongst women. Or under such conditions of egalitarianism can boy/girl wrestling even be called manliness? It must be called simply “justice as fairness” in all things. I’m all for women’s rights and feminism—but wrestling? Really? What kind of veil of ignorance can cover this absurdity? It’s pretty hilarious if you think about it.

There is a good account of the story and its implications here .

I suspect that such things describe the life of youth today. It is youth understood according to the terms of current convention, but it is youth nonetheless. But young Joel Northrup knew better. He defaulted on the final heat. Somehow his hormones and habituation—a good combination of character and religion—told him there wasn’t something quite right here. However, other boys had no problem wrestling Cassie Herkelman in the earlier rounds. That must have been quite a show—especially given the fact that those boys lost to this girl wrestler. The humor is too rich!

Kay Hymowitz has a new book coming out that criticizes the ever growing number of childlike men. In movies, song and advertising, the adult teenage boy is omnipresent. This type of man is neither manly nor adult. Instead he lives his life playing video games and making pop cultural references. Cleverness, a contingent virtue for the particular age of now, shows forth as a way for the modern male to make friends and influence people. He is not simply the “sensitive new age guy” (SNAG) of the of the ‘70s and ‘80s. He’s simply an adult pre-adolscent boy. No Alan Alda sincerity here. Sincerity is for suckers—yet for the new man/boy, the writing of a memoir when one is a nobody who has done nothing seems to be a profitable enterprise nonetheless. According to Hymowitz, this is apparently the ethos of young men these days, and women will just have to learn to live with no satisfaction understood in the old fashion—or they must become wrestlers.

If young men must wrestle girls in high school (and possibly even lose), I guess I understand better the incessant playing of World of Warcraft or Guild Wars as a decent preoccupation. One must win at something!

In sum, I am confident that natural procreation will continue. Video games are surely clever diversions—they demonstrate a great amount of ingenuity and imagination in their making—but other concerns must be central by nature. The question is what kind of people will engage in this procreation? And what will they spawn? What kind of virtue is required here? Hopefully it’s the same old, same old.

But in regard to it all, there is definitely More Than This than it seems.

Articles by John Presnall


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