CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|Five Histories of Western Philosophy
Bertrand Russell finds himself in purgatory, tumbling through literal representations of the worlds of ideas he examined in his classic text, A History of Western Philosophy, gulping much-needed air, for example, from Empedocles’ bucket. Mistaking his erection for a planted flag, he declares the place Platonopolis, attempts to calculate his Pythagorean number, kills God (though he later sees evidence of His resurrection), and, Rousseau-like, turns away from reason and civilization, favoring the noble savage, only to march back into the concrete jungle as one of Nietzsche’s savage nobles. In the end, however, he is all jumbled up and clucking like Einstein’s cuckoo clock, until he perceives philosophy as music, hears its arguments as a symphonic procession of the electrochemical pulses produced within three-pound lumps—lumps self-amalgamated from the vomitus of stars—and revises his History.
“This was the man I was looking for.” Of course, his eyesight was so bad he said it to a snake slipping under the bed and hissing like Ammonius.
His life had been almost coextensive with one of the most disastrous periods in Roman history, but that was okay because the world of ideas—that eternal world of goodness and beauty as opposed to this illusory experience of ruin and misery—awaited him.
“Strive to give back the Divine in yourself to the Divine in the All,” he told the snake, and the snake carried these, his last words, through a hole in the wall.
On the other side, he felt a chill and so went toward the light, in which he basked for seven hours before it faded away. Hmph, he hissed, not expecting that, and began a footless glide through time and space. He flowed like a sheet, yet his underbelly felt scraped. Another illusion of the senses, or had pure intellect misapprehended what he would find here? Anyway, happiness is attainable only within consciousness, and the accidents of anyone’s historical experience are unimportant.
Upward ascending now, through so many grabbing arms, pausing only to consider night’s pitch upside down, suspended from a limb … It looked still like pitch (though poor eyesight, once again, could have been to blame). When he could go no higher, he laid himself out and seemed to sleep, or to pass, while the fingers of a breeze gave him shape.
A head and nothing more emerged from the form and plopped into a roiling sea of ideas, leaving behind a knot of tissue paper for the birds to peck, the used wrapper of a soul’s embodiment, imprinted with these words: Strive to give back the Divine in yourself to the Divine in the All.
“In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, take up that loaf, and leave it in some such place where no man may find it.” The crow couldn’t believe its ears but perceived at once that the man in the cave meant business, for he threatened first to isolate, then to starve, and finally to whip the “foul creature” if it did not obey, adding, “Wounds to your body to cure the wounds of your soul.” The crow began preening, which served three purposes: to mask its anxiety, to tidy up its feathers, and, most importantly, to see if these wounds had not been delivered already. What it found instead were lice, which the man stole from it immediately, calling them “pearls of God.”
Now what was the crow to make of that?
A bell began to ring, at first distant but getting closer, yet so slowly it was eerie. At length, it revealed itself at the mouth of the cave, having bumped down the precipice on the end of a rope, to which was also fastened the man’s dinner. “Must be nice,” murmured the crow.
“This we charge above all things,” the man chastised the bird: “Those who live murmur not. Especially when a man is digesting.” Hardly had he finished his meal when he made another loaf on the floor and bade the crow to remove it.
Confiding now in the crow, he pointed upward. “He’s trying to kill me, keeping my body alive while poisoning my mind. Shows me His beauty but won’t let me touch it. There was a woman. Made in His image, mind you, His own rapturous image, yet He forbade me to touch or even speak of my desire. Him and His rules. I threw myself in the briers, where the flesh He’d so inflamed was properly ripped to shreds. Wounds to the body to cure the wounds of the heart. I bethought to cover myself with animal skin and heard shepherds, who chanced to pass, mistake me for a beast, a beast not unlike you, my friend, free to feed the body as I wished, with whichever of His swollen fruits caught my fancy. But I am a man and so came to this hole in the rock, this triangular opening wherein to make myself whole again, that is, torn to shreds by His will.”
Nodding sympathetically, the crow took up the loaves in its claws and carried them to a place where God would never find them.
Gregory the Great
Loco sta. Loco sta. Sweet locusta, stay in place. Keep thy wings folded and remain in my sight on the good book there. I only pray you have washed after such copulation and that you had the good sense not to penetrate a cousin. Would that I could contemplate day and night with thy humming and buzzing as angelic chanting in my ears, but I am called once more to burdensome authority, for God places the best men in power that through them He may show His mercy to their subjects. I showed a monk mercy once. On his deathbed, he confessed to stealing three gold pieces, so I had his body and purse thrown on a manure heap, while offering this curse: “Take your money with you to perdition.” Why seem you rattled, little one? Let me instruct you. It was the shortest path to his salvation, I offered, and thus the greatest mercy. Look! Another joins you. Praise God, an albino! If this be a sign … he appears, as did that English slave boy I met, less an Angle than an angel before my eyes. Listen! How together you make a holy choir!
And so, Gregory converted the English pagans and triggered thereby an avalanche of albino Christianity upon the western world, which covered all lands in such a deep layer of white and light that the dark ages were a natural result. So be it. He abhorred secular learning anyway, though highly educated himself. Oddly, he is prayed to now as the patron saint of students and teachers. But I digress.
Look there! A third locust upon the good book. And a fourth and a fifth! A plague of locusts! See how they jostle to devour its meaning.
Miraculously, the book disintegrated in his hands, gutted and replaced by the swarm, which became the living, breathing Word, chanting unto his ears in a droning, sparking, fingernail-scratching terror of God’s praises that mercifully short-circuited the man and shortened the path to his salvation.
“I see you’ve taken a second wife,” said the king, tilting his head toward Alice, the “hook-nosed harpy,” as More’s friend called her, who sat opposite the men, just as in More’s Utopia.
“I did not divorce.”
“Yet, within a little month … a beast, as they say, would have mourned longer.”
Alice’s nose bent sharply.
“I trust the dispensation on the banns against such haste was easily obtained. And is this her daughter?” asked the king, as Alice’s daughter carried in a soup tureen. “And these your four children from before?”
More’s son and three daughters placed utensils and other dinnerware neatly on the table, waiting on their elders, just as in his Utopia.
“If any were too young to be waiters,” More stated proudly, “they would stand by in marvelous silence and be content with the scraps.”
The king fingered his royal mustaches and muttered something else about beasts, dogs in particular.
“What was that?”
“Oh, nothing. Nothing. Tell me more of this Utopia.”
“There are to be fifty-four towns, all on the same plan, except one of them will be the capital. The streets will all be exactly twenty feet broad, and the private houses will be identical, with one door onto the street and one onto the garden. There will be no locks on the doors, and everyone may enter any house.”
“What about the castle?”
“No castle. The roofs will all be flat, and every ten years people will change houses. In the country, the farms will comprise not fewer than forty persons with each farm under the rule of a master and mistress, who are to be old and wise. And, get this, the chickens will not be hatched by hens, but by incubators!”
“What the devil are incubators?” asked the king.
“I don’t know yet. And every person will work only six hours a day, for much of our current labor is uselessly spent producing luxuries for the rich, which will not be necessary.”
“And what else won’t be necessary?” The royal brow was raised.
“Fashion.” More just managed to keep from glancing at the king’s attire.
“I can see that plainly,” said the king, looking around at More’s mini-Utopia. “You are all dressed alike, except for the differences in men and women, boys and girls.”
“And that won’t change—summer or winter. At work, leather or skins. After work, a woolen cloak on top. All cloaks alike and the natural color of wool.”
“Doesn’t allow for much fun now, does it?”
“A prescribed hour of play follows supper.”
“Then bedtime at eight o’clock sharp, so …” More hesitated.
“At eight, I must depart,” the king finished the sentence.
“Well, of course, the rules don’t apply to you.”
The king made no attempt to hide how much he enjoyed the meal—his jowls jiggled jovially, and his beard caught the scraps. Nor did he hide how much he relished the stuffed-belly hour of play afterward.
“I have only one question for you,” he stated as the clock struck VIII. “Which wife will you bring and which clothes will you wear to heaven?”
A man paces a cell in a tower. It is one of many cells. He is one of many men. Each has been judged by at least one other to have committed a crime against man (either in isolation or in collections called “bodies,” as in the body politic). Or, he has been discovered to possess a fault in his reasoning. Both, in some cases. In this man’s case, the crime was corruption, and the fault in reasoning, to conclude that everything could be explained as following from sufficient causes.
Endeavoring to think his way out, he paces the cell, arguing with himself. It is the same throughout, giving the tower, more or less, the shape of the history of thought. It is also the Tower of London.
A key turns in the lock; hinges protest against the weight of the door; and a dead chicken, his sustenance for a week, is thrown in. Already, it shows signs of decay, particularly in the olfactory sensation it produces in that part of his brain connected to the nostrils. Gears turn. There must be a way to preserve his meat. In attempting to answer this riddle, he is not alone in the tower. Nor is he alone in the world. “I had rather believe,” says he, pinching his nose, “that this universal frame is not without a mind. God convinces by His ordinary works and needs not miracles.”
The heavens smiled upon him. Snow blew in through the cross-shaped arrowslit, making a fleecy cross on the floor with the chicken (smelling better already) at its center. A miracle to some, no doubt. To him, a eureka! moment. He stuffed the chicken with snow and would have shared his discovery with the world had he not caught a chill from the experiment and died of pneumonia.
A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell
Daniel Grandbois is the author of the Indie Next Notable Book and Believer Book Award Reader Survey Selection Unlucky Lucky Days (BOA Editions); the art novel The Hermaphrodite: An Hallucinated Memoir (Green Integer), illustrated by Alfredo Benavidez Bedoya (Argentina); and the prose-poetry omnibus Unlucky Lucky Tales (Texas Tech University Press), illustrated by Fidel Sclavo (Uruguay). He lives in Colorado and tours extensively in Europe and North America with the band Slim Cessna’s Auto Club.