“Hegel and Napoleon in Jena” (illustration from Harper’s Magazine, 1895)
Writing about abstract philosophical issues often feels irrelevant in a world of poverty, homelessness, and war. And I know that being able to write depends on social stability; I wouldn’t be writing were I fleeing violence or if I were impoverished or homeless. Let me try to better explain.
Lately, I have felt conflicted as I start to write a post. Should I write about timeless topics like the meaning of life and death, cosmic evolution, truth, beauty, goodness, justice, love, etc. or should I pen a short essay about current events, especially political ones?
The appeal of timeless topics to a philosopher is obvious. They drew me to philosophy many years ago and, long after whatever is happening now is over and likely forgotten, the timeless topics endure. They are substantive and largely permanent. Yet thinking about such topics can seem superfluous given the anxiety and suffering that abound. To think and write about them brings the phrase “ivory tower” readily to mind.
On the other hand, current political events seem so urgent, especially when the social fabric, the social stability on which we all depend is fracturing. Such concerns seem paramount. Yet isn’t the role of the philosopher is precisely to go beyond the questions of the moment, to see things in a larger and hopefully a more meaningful context?
Notice though that philosophy, like all of high culture, depends largely on political stability. That is why Aristotle thought that politics was the master science; it is indispensable to having a good society. As he says in the very first sentences of his Politics (Oxford World’s Classics),
Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good. But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.
So perhaps my concerns with immediate political concerns aren’t misplaced, as long as one tries to bring to them the analysis and reflection of a philosopher. But we can also drown in the fever of the moment, blinding us to the larger movement of deep time, a perspective from which our concerns appear trivial. (I don’t think this was ever captured more profoundly than in Carl Sagan’s brief video “The Pale Blue Dot.”)
So, for the most part, I’ll continue to closely study both the timely and the timeless. I’ll also remember philosophers who wrote great works amidst troubling times. After all, Hegel was putting the finishing touches to it, The Phenomenology of Spirit, as Napoleon engaged Prussian troops on 14 October 1806 in the Battle of Jena on a plateau outside the city.