On Sunsets, Moonrises, and Wisdom

Hegel said the owl of Minerva flies at dusk, meaning that wisdom is gained at the end of history, which Hegel needed to believe because he embodied, and indeed largely ignited, the essential “progressive” urge to stop the world and get off. It was not really history that attracted his mind, nor even wisdom per se, but rather the end. Progressivism, of which Hegel may be the greatest of the founding fathers, is at its core a craving for oblivion, or more precisely for annihilation.

Why would a man crave the end, and even make it his life’s mission to prove that he is the end? The answer is as obvious as it is invisible to our self-deluding progressive age: because he cannot abide the thought that life should carry on without him. And necessity is the mother of invention. In short, an overwhelming fear of the impending irrelevance of his material personhood, a dread of being transcended by Life, initiates a conceptual process which at its heights entails a redefining of all reality, or even a denial of the ultimate existence of all reality, aimed at proving that somehow it all ends here, with him, in him, through him, such that — insofar as the continuance of time and life cannot be denied outright by one who wishes to appear nominally rational — whatever time and life may ensue must nevertheless be nothing but the continuance of him. In effect, he must obliterate or “sublate” everything that came before, in what may appear on the surface to be a supreme act of self-assertion or even hubris, but is in fact the desperate (and brilliant) ploy of a frightened child demanding that the grown-ups never leave him alone again, i.e., that he continue to be the center of the universe forever.

Civilizations do indeed end. The sun sets, twilight comes. But contrary to the German idealist distortion of theoretical reason, philosophy is not the wisdom of death, but rather the desire of life. To the degree that the owl of Minerva flies at dusk, the greater perspective he achieves is not any kind of finality, but quite the contrary: an ennobling understanding that the flight line he surveys is both shorter than he thought and less straight than it had previously seemed. The life which had once, in our immaturity, appeared rectilinear and unique, may now be seen as a mere tiny arc, implying a circle. 

It is instructive that Hegel chose the Roman goddess Minerva as the controller of his famous companion animal, eschewing its original and proper Greek identity, the owl of Athena. For Athenian is precisely the character that German idealism (and perhaps all German philosophy) lacks, as is attested to by comparing Hegel’s interpretation of history with this remarkable final passage from Aristotle’s Metaphysics XII.8:

Our forefathers in the most remote ages have handed down to their posterity a tradition, in the form of a myth, that these [heavenly] bodies are gods, and that the divine encloses the whole of nature. The rest of the tradition has been added later in mythical form with a view to the persuasion of the multitude and to its legal and utilitarian expediency; they say these gods are in the form of men or like some of the other animals, and they say other things consequent on and similar to these which we have mentioned. But if one were to separate the first point from these additions and take it alone–that they thought the first substances to be gods, one must regard this as an inspired utterance, and reflect that, while probably each art [technē] and each science [epistēmē] has often been developed as far as possible and has again perished, these opinions, with others, have been preserved until the present like relics of the ancient treasure. Only thus far, then, is the opinion of our ancestors and of our earliest predecessors clear to us. (W.D. Ross translation)

What the Greeks knew, and were mature enough to admit they knew, was that sunsets are endless, and furthermore that if this were not so, life would be meaningless. Dusk is not symbolic of the end, but is rather the necessary precondition of new beginnings. And wisdom, to whatever extent it is possible for man, is the presaging of such new beginnings during the dark hours of the soul; or even, if we may use the slightly misleading Nietzschean language, the willing of such beginnings. 

Philosophy, the love of wisdom, may indeed be a creature of the night — not because night is the end of day, however, but rather because night is the time of the moon, which reflects the sun, thus both echoing past life and calling forth the sunrise.

Friday night was the first night of Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving holiday, the date of which is determined by the lunar calendar, at the harvest moon.

Here are some photographs I took during the evening, from sunset to moonrise. I used black and white in a few, for those of you who, like me, appreciate the light-and-shadow aspect of photography.

Happy Chuseok.

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