- Philosophy and the Return to Self-Knowledge
Donald Verene’s study can be said to belong legitimately to the timeless tradition of meditative thinking. The phrase is burdened with ambiguous resonances. One thinks of Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy or Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations, where “meditation” describes the very foundation of philosophy, the roots from which alone, as Husserl has it, “philosophy can grow originally.” Verene’s book, which forcefully counters the claims of the Cartesian cogito because it breeds skepticism and doubts about knowledge, recalls a different, more ancient practice of thought. In the twelfth century, the Cistercian monk, Bernard of Clairvaux, launches his opposition to Abelard’s dialectical rationalism from the perspective of Socratic self-knowledge, a perspective that stretches onto Petrarch and Erasmus who deploy it respectively, against the Averroists and the Scholastics. Bernard, who is a practitioner of the interior life, speaks of “consideration” (etymologically “to move with the stars”). He distinguishes it from “reflection” and “contemplation” and sees it as involving a searching with both heart and mind into the sacred sources of life.
Philosophy and the Return to Self-Knowledge self-consciously inscribes itself in the speculative tradition inaugurated, in modern spirituality by the doctor mellifluus, and, in antiquity, by Pythagoras and the Delphic oracle. As is appropriate to a specifically philosophical inquiry, Verene acknowledges the ascetic labors of the soul, but he translates them into a secularized humanistic ethics and a civil wisdom.
There are for Verene two radically divergent value-systems that accompany and/or threaten with forfeiture the endless quest for self-knowledge. On the one hand, there is the false kingdom of the cult of appearances. In this land of unlikeness, like Narcissus gazing at his own image, we are dupes of our phantasms and mistake images for reality. Like Prometheus, who steals the fire from the gods, we create a universe of shams that is a caricature of Creation. This world of lies and mere appearances is also the world of antiphysis where modern man, master of illusions, reflects himself in ephemeral and immoderate objects of consumption. On the other hand, can emerge from the depths of nothingness by following the path of true self-knowledge, by heeding the instruction of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: “gnothi seauton, ‘know thyself.’ Only in it, and in its corresponding instruction in virtue—meden agan, ‘nothing too much’—can true philosophy expect to live” (p. 259).
This dualistic paradigm of knowledge and values organizes the unfolding of Verene’s essay, but the bulk of it centers on—but does not retrieve—the possible middle ground between them. Written in a diaphanous, translucent style, Philosophy and the Return of Self-Knowledge has as its point of departure the interrogation of the spiritual roots for the crisis of modernity. In “Notes toward [End Page 249] a Supreme Fiction,” Wallace Stevens writes: “The first idea was not our own. Adam/ in Eden was the father of Descartes.” Verene offers a tacit gloss to Stevens: in his genealogy, Prometheus is the “imaginative universal” or mythical prefiguration of Descartes as the philosopher of dualism of mind and body, of confusion between certainty and knowledge, of philosophy and method, of science that engenders the technological values of our time, and brings about the erasure of Memory.
The classical polarization between Vico and Descartes overtly sustains “Barbarism of Reflection” (chapter one), which is a magisterial exercise in the tradition of the history of the idea of “reflection” from optics to philosophy, from antiquity to the present. Reflection declares the world to be phenomenal, not substantial. More than that, the optimistic belief that the essence of reality can be grasped and controlled by the power of science is exposed as a recurrent dream or delusion. In fact, in the House of Science reason dwells isolated from the demands of human reality. There, scientific reason shuts the door that leads to the outside and, blinded by the glimmer of its own light, it drafts endless geometries of the possible. What is needed—so...