Mind and Body

Who would not think, seeing us compose all things of mind and body, but that this mixture would be quite intelligible to us? Yet it is the very thing we least understand. Man is to himself the most wonderful object in nature; for he cannot conceive what the body is, still less what the mind is, and least of all how a body should be united to a mind. This is the consummation of his difficulties, and yet it is his very being.

— Pascal, Pensées, Section II, 72

Modern man, in his obsession with certainty, has given birth to two all-too-easy, mirroring answers to this dilemma of our incomprehensible mixture of mind and body: materialism and idealism. The first seeks to solve the mind-body mystery by simply denying the existence of mind qua spiritual substance; the second by simply denying the existence of body qua material substratum.

The fatal flaw of both answers, and the essential weakness of modernity’s simplistic need for certainty: Both idealism and materialism implicitly deny the possibility of individual growth or development, i.e., learning — the idealists by rejecting the fuel of learning, the materialists by denying the reason to learn. Both answers are well-suited to an age that has lost the courage to embrace the tragicomic fatality of the human condition, which was the ancient impetus to the philosophic life. We moderns are motivated primarily by the elemental fear of violent death (a very low and bodily concern), as Hobbes informed us at the outset with chilling honesty. For us, therefore, the stable and secure outcome, the clear and distinct solution, has always had the strongest attraction, whereas prior to the modern age, philosophy was typified by its resolute acceptance of life without the immediate promise of clarity and distinctness regarding the ultimate questions.

But the inability to answer a question is not a reason to give up on asking it, let alone to reject the core of the question as an error or illusion. The incomprehensibility of matter is no argument against its philosophical relevance. Nor is the unreachable simplicity of the pure idea a cause for despair. On the contrary, the key to sustaining the life of seeking and self-overcoming — the life fueled by matter and motivated by spirit — is never to flee from either extreme of our existence into the exclusive domain of the other, but rather to understand that their mysterious and delicate attachment as hunter and hunted, or fish and lure, is the essence and glory of our peculiarly human mode of being. 

The means of this attachment, and the notably and necessarily missing link in modern philosophy, of both the materialist and idealist sorts, is the force which Plato identified as a semi-divine messenger between gods and men, and which Aristotle named as the force sustaining the ceaseless motion of the heavenly spheres, namely Eros.

The paradox of modernity’s opposite impulses is that each is self-nullifying, insofar as it denies the definitive interrelatedness of the two parts of our nature. That is, body without mind is not body, and mind without body is not mind. To reject either body (potential) or mind (soul), as we moderns are forever finding new ways to do, is literally to detach ourselves from ourselves, thereby denying our existence outright, which makes nonsense of both endeavors. In the desperate quest to escape our modern dread of death, we have denied the essence of life, by eradicating — from our theories and self-understanding, at least — the desire to know.

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