Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind,
flight to the imagination and life to everything.
Was my number perfect or incomplete, beautiful or ugly, real or mere illusion? I tried to calculate it but couldn’t step into the same river twice. I needed air and, thank Empedocles, there was still some left in the bucket. Unfortunately, everything contained everything, so air contained water. I held whisper-still that the liquid wouldn’t separate and come to the fore.
But stillness is a trap.
“Truth is relative to the perceiver!” I broke the silence. “Become what you will, then, for I’ll perceive you as I will! You are air! Nothing more.” Much offended, some of it escaped back into the bucket.
(His balls had shriveled in the water, and he gave them a purposeful scratch.)
Well I’ve certainly been afforded the opportunity to converse unencumbered here. A kind of utopia, I suppose. Ruled by a philosopher of one.
Let me take stock. Do I still give a hoot about obtaining knowledge? If so, I guess this bucket is all I have to interact with. This bucket and all this water. This bucket, this water, and what’s left of the physical object I used to call myself.
(Caressed by the liquid, his member responded, and, as men are wont to do, he perceived it as a planted flag.)
“I shall call this Platonopolis.”
(The place being named, a huge sponge appeared, blotting up the water and depositing the man at the mouth of a cave, a mouth reeking of halitosis and murmuring without end:)
“…above all, let not the evil of murmuring appear in the least word or sign for any reason here…”
“Tell that to the locust,” I said, for, at that very moment, a cute, little guy had landed on my shoulder, where it hummed in my ear for me to stay put. The question was: should I heed either message, the cave’s or the locust’s, given that both were delivered bymurmur?
Well, one cannot know and believe a thing at the same time, so I decided to believe I knew the answer and set about clearing the cave. Spent torches, lifeless shadows, and the like. Making a home had always before brought feelings of satisfaction, accomplishment, and hope… yet, I was strangely unmoved, and, as God was the only unmoved mover I knew of, I had to wonder…
The spell was broken, however, the moment I, man-like, swelled with love of power.
Dread of punishment followed soon after. What a brainsick fool I’d been. I sat on the cave’s tongue and forced my thoughts back to utopias on Earth, if that’s even where I was.
Everyone would wear the same color habit, not because religion consisted of such folly, but to make men less covetous of their neighbor’s wife’s dress and thereby less likely to rip it off, so to speak. All the houses would likewise be identical, each with one door onto the street and one onto the garden… A distant bell tinkled. A brainsick fool again! For how could the mere orderly arrangement of particulars get us back to the garden? I’d been spinning finery out of my own insides, like a spider.
The bell descended down the precipice, bumping along as if it had all day, which, I suppose, it did. At length, it revealed itself on the end of a spider’s leg of rope, to which was also fastened a leg of lamb.
“Must be nice,” murmured a crow who’d been tracking the meat’s progress.
“Must be nice,” I cawed back as it flew away from there.
I yanked the rope. A thunderous shriek split the cliff face, and God tumbled down before me, dead.
His robes were as opulent as Henry VIII’s, and His body, where it lay, formed a less-than-perfect and somewhat flattened sphere. More of an ellipse, really. A gross ellipse. Tracing its outline, I came to understand the motions of all heavenly bodies.
The body began shrinking or else moving away. I whipped out my telescope and made a stab at it. By Jupiter! Several little bodies could be seen, prancing around the big one like dwarves. I must confess, believing myself the first to ever see them produced in me a profound attraction toward them. Was it too much to hope that I attracted them too, for what is the heart but a spring?
Alas, snow blew in through my telescope, and they were gone.
And I? I fled in terror at the invisible power, unsure if it belonged to religion or superstition. But it was so cold out there in the vast, groping dark, so unknowably cold. By the time I found a hut, I climbed straight into the oven, where, due to sensory deprivation, I had three visions. The chief of them had something to do with hands like pumpkins, and earthenware heads, whereas the overall effect of the three, once I’d climbed out and brushed off my trousers, was to crystalize this thought: I could not doubt that I doubted. It comforted me no end.
“My what big eyes you have,” a cloaked girl addressed me on entering the hut.
“All the better to see you with,” I replied without willing it.
“I knew you were going to say that.”
“Is that so?”
“Everything is fixed, and you can’t change it.”
“You’re a fool.”
“Nice try,” she said, “but I knew you’d say that, too.”
Pulling out my pencil, I insisted that disputes such as these could be resolved reasonably by systems of rigorous calculations. “Let us calculate.”
“I knew you’d say that.”
“Is that all you can say?”
“There. I’ve broken the spell.” I put down my pencil. “Now, could you kindly point the way to the White Cliffs of Dover?”
“A blank slate, eh?” she remarked, cunning as a wolf.
“And the chalk to write on it. I have a message for Bishop Berkeley.”
I won’t describe the journey to you, as my senses didn’t describe it to me. I used the cliffs’ own chalk to write in letters three hundred feet high: IF YOU CAN READ THIS, YOU’RE TOO CLOSE. Of course, I was far too close to perceive the message, and therefore, according to Berkeley, it didn’t exist, which, in truth, it didn’t seem to, since it was written with the same white chalk of the cliffs.
Apparently, the good, fat Lord had been resurrected, for the message was later seen, I was told, but denounced as a work of skepticism and atheism, so I erased the nobler parts and left only, YOU’RE TOO CLOSE. I was a man of mild dispositions, after all. Even love of literary fame, my ruling passion, never soured my temper, despite such towering disappointments.
Reason, however, had soured on the vine. That and civilization itself, which struck me now as rotting ever onward—zombielike. I rejected them both at once and turned to the jungle in favor of a savage’s noble heart. Almost immediately, I was assaulted by a wind of a most disgusting nature—a hot, sulfurous wind, not for the faint of heart. I stuck my nose in it only to draw conclusions, mind you, and came away convinced that all forms of life must have a common ancestry. So much for the jungle.
The whole world then was basically a giant complex organism, capable of emitting the most noxious fumes. I folded my legs upon a stone and took refuge in the hope that this latest impression would dissolve into something more agreeable.
I was not disappointed, unless you count melancholy’s attendance, as the scene dissolved into a concrete jungle, complete with young boys and a half sister, where pleasure was a sin, and sin a pleasure, where my wicked will vainly sought satisfaction. Was I to be one of Nietzsche’s bungled and botched here or rise to his definition of noble? Still savage, yes, but city-savage: ruthless and cunning and concerned only with my own power. Pride was busy recommending the latter when an army of my brothers clapped me on the back, embraced me as their comrade, and turned my attentions fully to their plight.
“What’s the matter?” I asked one.
“I can’t remember.”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter.” The brief chat convinced me that memory was not matter but some sort of mortar. If only I could find the house to daub it with.
“My house is just over that hill.”
“That hill. That hill.”
“Oh, I see.” Truly, I saw no hill, but if believing in it proved useful to this afflicted young fellow in finding his way home, I was all for it and only hoped he would go there forthwith and learn something useful, like cooking and carpentry, or weaving and gardening.
Imagine two cocks—I mean, clocks. One clucks; the other, tocks.
Faintly at first, but then overtaking the crowded hall, playing like Mozart on my convoluted organ… The arguments! The themes! Harmonic logic and counterpoint! Combinations of notes of varying pitch and duration—even now, how to explain their effects?
And the rests in between.
Coming down through the ages, a symphonic procession of the electrochemical pulses inside three-pound lumps, lumps self-amalgamated from the vomitus of stars.
Here then is a revised History of Western Philosophy.
—Unlucky Lucky Bertrand
Who claimed to be a god and is said to have died by leaping into the crater of Etna to prove as much; who certainly exemplified the mixture of philosopher, prophet, man of science, and charlatan found in Pythagoras; whose most important contribution to science was his discovery of air by the proof that water doesn’t enter a bucket placed upside down in a pool; whose theories are mentioned in several of Plato’s dialogues; whom Aristotle credited as being the first to distinguish clearly the four elements; and who, in addition, posited two cycling forces to act upon them: Love, which combines the elements into one, and Strife, which tears them asunder again.
“Here sprang up many faces without necks, arms wandered without shoulders, unattached, and eyes strayed alone, in need of foreheads. Many creatures were born with faces and breasts on both sides, man-faced ox-progeny, while others again sprang forth as ox-headed offspring of man, creatures compounded partly of male, partly of the nature of female, and fitted with shadowy parts. They did not yet display the desirable form of limbs or voice, for Love had only begun her work.”
Inside the volcano, fire and earth were not fully separated either, and the noxious air was enough to make a man lose his water. “My head swirled in a vortex, as did my lunch, which Strife sought to separate from me. Who knew Strife still held sway in this squirting pimple of Earth? Do you not know,” he addressed Strife, “I made whole a woman dead thirty days? That’s how much love I showed her corpse. She was the very girl of whom I wrote: When a girl, playing with a water-clock of shining brass, puts the orifice of the pipe upon her comely hand, and dips it into the yielding, wet mass, the stream does not run in until she uncovers the pipe. That’s science.”
He sought then to seduce Strife with power by demonstrating his control of the winds, a trick he’d performed outside the pimple. He succeeded only in farting, a dangerous outcome near flames.
Strife was not impressed.
“Did you know I discovered centrifugal force? Sure, bring me a cup of water, and I’ll show you.”
Strife did not fall for it.
“If I whirl the cup round at the end of a string, the water will not come out. It is much the same force you used to throw air into the atmosphere and fire into the distant sun, for you had such a hand in making the cosmos.”
The flattery had no effect, save to cost the man his lunch, followed by his eyes and limbs, which, as yet, remained motionless beside him.
“A twofold tale I shall tell thee.” His mouth still worked. “Double is the birth of mortal things and double their failing; for one is brought to birth and destroyed by the coming together of all things, the other is nurtured and flies apart as they grow apart again. Through Love all comes together. What tears apart is Strife.”
And so the man lost his mouth, which opened and closed with his eyes, seeking to grasp Love somewhere in the caverns, while disintegrating in Strife. An uncanny sensation accosted him as his elements sunk back into Earth: he was falling in Love.
Who was satirized in the theatre of his day as a man talking nonsense from a basket above the stage; who was obsessed with the problem of getting competent men into positions of power; and who, after being sentenced by the powerful, speculated that death could afford him the opportunity to converse unencumbered.
The underworld theatre had emptied, save the form of one Socrates, hanging in a basket above the stage, and another form of the same man, barefoot and shabbily dressed on a wooden bench in the audience.
Here then was their opportunity to dialogue forever without the threat of death.
“You had better be done with your shoemakers, carpenters, and coppersmiths,” said the one in the basket, picking his teeth.
“By all means, teach.”
“Pour myself into others?” The basket twirled. “No, I am not a teacher. More a midwife. I can help you birth that baby if you like.”
“I am a man.”
“Your paunch says otherwise.”
“To be sure, my paunch flaunts a bulbous nose, yet its internal passage is narrow. In forcing air through it towards the breech, distended like a trumpet at this tender age, it may indeed, as you say, speak, but do not be taken in so easily by an ignoble gas. Now, what’s this about shoemakers? Is it not obvious I am needless of their wares?” He wiggled his bare toes.
“Why, then, you’re halfway home.”
“And to what other practice should I subscribe to close the gap?”
The basket tilted toward the audience, as if to say the answer had already been given.
The benched philosopher ran his fingers through his long, grey locks. “Be done with carpenters and coppersmiths?” he said at last. “What needs have I anyway of their wares? Look at me.” He stood arrogantly and leaned on a knobbed stick. “By your own reckoning, then, it appears I am home.”
“There are others,” the basket groaned.
“Listen,” said the man, approaching the stage. “I cannot stop your lines of query down here, your inane carryings-on up there.” He poked the basket with the stick. “Though your performance up there,” he pointed above them both, “has been halted for good. After doing as much as anything, I might add, to seal our fate…”
“A player in a play in a basket above a stage…”
“A slanderous comedian, corrupting young minds.”
“Do I have to spell it out? The carpenters and captains of ships of state. Can you unhand their fruits? That is the question. And what of the overripe tomatoes of your own mind? We are not home yet.”
The basket was whacked until it broke, spilling its contents to the floor.
“How’s that for home?” said the man with the stick.
Who was born on a hilltop castle to the Count of Aquino; who disliked Platonism, even as it appears in St. Augustine, and succeeded in persuading the Church that Aristotle’s system was to be preferred; whose proof for the existence of God argues, as does Aristotle’s, that whatever is moved is moved by something, and, since an endless regress of movers is impossible, we must arrive somewhere at something which moves other things without being moved; whose most important work, the Summa contra Gentiles (Philosophy against Gentiles), is concerned with establishing the truth of the Christian religion by arguments assuming in advance the truth of the Christian religion; whose reputation was damaged when a list of his propositions was condemned by a bishop in Paris; but who, after his death, was seen in Dante’s Divine Comedy as a glorified soul in the Heaven of the Sun, and elevated to sainthood by the Catholic Church, which considers him its greatest theologian and philosopher.
“My purpose is to declare the truth of the Catholic Faith, but gentiles do not accept the authority of Scripture, so I must have recourse to reason. Reason, however, is deficient in the things of God, though nothing in revelation, I can assure you, is contrary to reason.”
“Where do you want this couch,” said the mover.
“Over there is fine. Are you listening to me?”
“I’m trying, buddy, but I’ve got a job to do here.”
“I had a job to do once.”
“Oh, yeah, what was that?” The mover walked toward a box. “How about this?”
“It says “Kitchen” on the side, does it not?”
“So it does. I thought I heard dishes.”
“I was to convince by reason what cannot be known by reason.”
“Sounds pretty important.”
“It was. It was.” He trailed off but momentarily resolved to try again. “In God, there is no composition, therefore He is not a body, because bodies have parts.”
“Body parts, huh? You hidin’ somethin’ in one of these boxes?”
“I was born in a castle, I’ll have you know.”
With a lowered chin and a raised brow, the mover took in the man’s surroundings.
“My mother had my brothers seize me on my way to Rome and return me to the castle, where they held me prisoner for a year to ‘persuade’ me to change my mind about becoming a Dominican.”
“Whatever you say, Mack. Could you step out of the way there?”
“They sent in a prostitute to seduce me, but I held her off with a hot poker.”
“I bet you did.”
“Two angels appeared to thank me for it.”
“Musta been some night.”
“At last, my mother gave up and arranged for me to escape through a window, thinking a secret escape less damaging to the family’s dignity than an open surrender to the Dominicans.”
“Sounds like a good woman.”
“Are you hearing what I’m saying?”
The mover, arms full, stopped and looked him straight in the face. “Look, I could finish a lot quicker if you were out of the way.”
“‘My mouth shall meditate truth, and my lips shall hate impiety’ (Proverbs 8:7).”
“Hmm.” He tried again to impress, this time from his own writings: “The art of medicine rules and orders the art of the chemist because health, with which medicine is concerned, is the end of all the medications prepared by the art of the chemist. A similar situation obtains in the art of ship navigation in relation to shipbuilding, and in the military art with respect to the equestrian art and the equipment of war. The arts that rule other arts are called architectonic, as being the ruling arts. That is why the artisans devoted to these arts, who are called master artisans, appropriate to themselves the name of wise men. But, since these artisans are concerned, in each case, with the ends of certain particular things, they do not reach to the universal end of all things. They are therefore said to be wise with respect to this or that thing; in which sense it is said that ‘as a wise architect, I have laid the foundation’ (1 Cor. 3:10). The name of the absolutely wise man, however, is reserved for him whose consideration is directed to the end of the universe, which is also the origin of the universe. That is why, according to the Philosopher, it belongs to the wise man to consider the highest causes. Now, the end of each thing is that which is intended by its first author or mover. But the first author and mover of the universe…”
The mover was unmoved.
Whose parents were unmarried when he was born and subsequently died of the plague; whose guardians, apparently, cajoled him into becoming a monk; who wrote of monastics as “brainsick fools” for behaving as if religion consisted of wearing the right color habit, tying your sandals in the correct number of knots, and abstaining from the evil of murmuring; who preceded Rousseau in thinking true religion comes from the heart and was accused of preparing the way for Martin Luther by laying the egg that Luther hatched; who became increasingly unimportant and lived too long into an age of new virtues and new vices—heroism and intolerance—neither of which he could acquire.
And now they wonder what will become of the world after they are dead. It will be pretty to hear their pleas before the great tribunal: one will brag how he mortified his carnal appetite by feeding only upon fish: another will urge that he spent most of his time on earth in the divine exercise of singing psalms: another, that in threescore years he never so much as touched a piece of money, except he fingered it through a thick pair of gloves. But Christ will interrupt: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, I left you but one precept, of loving one another, which I do not hear any one plead that he has faithfully discharged.”
Listen: You were seated alone at the table, given your daily bread and told to discover another’s guilt and fear, but it was all a ruse. While you were busy tying a stranger’s sandals together in the prescribed number of knots, it was your own guilt and fear that were discovered by Him who put you to it. All have got the same who’ve bent over before Him. A simple fatherly joke or a divine lesson in folly? Neither, to the scholastics, who may well fumble their way into knitting pieces together and yet make nothing of the goat’s wool in your skull. The reason? It is there to be goat’s wool. He made it that way. Bend me now your ears. Not those ears you carry to church with you but those you are wont to prick up to jugglers, fools, and buffoons, and such as our friend Midas once gave to Pan—those tender parentheses stuck on either side of the wool. Listen: ignorant scribes have corrupted the true and genuine reading of your life. They said you laid an egg, but they misconceived the bird it hatched. While they erected their crests and spread their peacock’s plumes, you waddled in strange dress down the middle road between them and Luther. Have you not delighted to carry yourself thus? Then be not disheartened at what becomes of you or the world after you’re dead.
A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell
The Clouds, Aristophanes
The Praise of Folly, Erasmus, 1668 translation by John Wilson
Daniel Grandbois is the author of several books, including the prose poetry omnibus Unlucky Lucky Tales (Texas Tech University Press, 2012), illustrated by Fidel Sclavo. He holds an MFA in poetry from Bennington College, lives in Colorado and tours extensively in Europe and North America with the band Slim Cessna's Auto Club.