Distance From Praxis

"Life is like the Olympic games; a few men strain their muscles to carry off a prize; others sell trinkets to the crowd for a profit; some just come to look and see how everything is done."

-- Attributed to Pythagoras

A certain scorn has always been held in reserve for those whose primary interest in life is to think about it and understand it; who are not the least inclined to propose solutions to the world’s problems or recommend a course of action for its renewal. Who, in fact, are suspicious of action and “doing” altogether. Such persons have always been distrusted. And they are almost always disaffiliated, cut off and alone. In the world but not of it.

These rare types are not inscrutable. They want simply to know deeply about the existence to which they have been surrendered. What they seek is perspective, and gaining it takes a lifetime of reflection and observation, and this in turn is not possible if one is ceaselessly busy or motivated by the desire for material gain or renown.

The point has not been lost on some of our esteemed philosophers. Adorno, for instance, lent prickly color to the matter in his essay “Resignation”:

Distance from praxis is disreputable in the eyes of everyone. Anyone who does not take immediate action and who is not willing to get his hands dirty is the subject of suspicion…Distrust of those who distrust praxis extends from those on the opposite side, who repeat the old slogan, ‘We’ve had enough of talking’ all the way to the objective spirit of advertising, which propagates the picture…of the actively involved human being, no matter whether his activity lies in the realm of economics or athletics. One should take part. Whoever restricts himself to thinking but does not get involved is weak, cowardly and virtually a traitor.

One suspects the enmity for thinkers really is as severe as Adorno describes. Perhaps it is owing to the conviction that we, each of us, must make some contribution to the world, be useful to somebody somewhere, earn rather than be handed a living. Mere thinking, detached and philosophical, unmoored from pragmatic ends, is seen as indulgent, even solipsistic, and distinguishable from those cerebral and soulful arts which bear fruit (for example, music).

Then there is the deeply ingrained view that “real men” are men of action and adventure, virile and strong: fighters, rescuers, athletes, captains of industry; not contemplatives, not meek, passive observers of life. We admit the odd exception – the Buddhist monk, for example, who happens also to be a Shaolin master: here depth of mind is respected because it is instrumental to martial superiority.

To whom, on the other hand, are we ultimately accountable – before whom must we give an accounting of our life? Many among the company of the wise would reject answers like “society,” “one’s family,” “one’s fellow human beings.” For them neither science nor history, neither institutional religion nor a naturalist ethics can supply us with the answer.

Walt Whitman once commented that “we have a life both in and out of the game.” It is the “life out of the game,” perceived but not seen, unknown to the flesh, that something which is beyond time but also time’s judge – it is this that sages like Socrates, Dante and Spinoza, Santayana, Planck, and Einstein recognized as the ultimate sovereign. If one had to give it a name, it would be Eternity.

It comes down to this:

Those contemplatives seeking distance from praxis understand the dual nature of existence. They see that one stage of human life no sooner arrives than it disappears: childhood quickly gives way to adolescence, which meets its end in young adulthood, which collapses imperceptibly into middle life, mid-life into older age. One must live life forward but can only understand it in hindsight (Kierkegaard).

For all its compensations and joys, human life is marred and tainted by struggles, doubts, insecurities – also injustices, financial hardship, the failed quests for love, freedom, and ultimately meaning. This side of life, the rough and tumble of everyday business and routine, cannot address the mystery of being.

But there is that other side of life. The sublimity of thought, the beauty and splendor of nature, the sweet countenance of animals, the stirring power of music. And the sense, finally, that something else is going on behind, beyond, and through it all:

…I have felt A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man; A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of thought, And rolls through all things. (Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey”)

This is what attracts and holds the attention of certain thinkers and philosophers – the truth alongside which the daily run of life feels inglorious and uninspiring and even superfluous.