Philosophic Detachment

A student who is about to move away from home to begin graduate studies in philosophy was ruminating about the value and significance of detaching oneself from relationships and sentimental entanglements which distort or limit independent thought. As a young man deeply interested in both Eastern and Western thought, he mentioned having recently heard a Buddhist monk explaining the spiritual benefits of cutting away all ties to one’s normal social life, and indeed to society in general.

My reply was that although a certain kind of detachment or psychological self-isolation is absolutely necessary to the freest and most elevated thought, the monk’s recommendation of artificially imposed separation — “cutting away ties” — is likely to be less effective in achieving the proper goal, precisely because it is artificial. There are two reasons this is so.

First, the negative focus on forcibly shielding oneself from inherently attractive things (social advantages, pleasant associations) turns whatever good one hopes to achieve from the resulting isolation into a somewhat painful burden, a regimen to be adhered to, rather than a natural attraction in itself, as it should be. This is not to deny that the most serious life involves a considerable amount of discipline and diligence; it certainly does. But the sort of discipline indicated by the philosophic life has less to do with denying oneself (negative discipline) than with making a happy routine of squeezing opportunities for private thought out of every situation (positive discipline). And the diligence required of philosophy has to do primarily with refusing to accept any failure of reasoning as final, or conversely to fall into the weakness of imagining any degree of understanding to be “far enough.”

Secondly, acknowledging a need to “cut away” society reveals that one has not yet found the true alternative good, which — contrary to the Buddhist sensibility, which always seems unsatisfactory to me on this point — should not be the detachment itself, but rather some activity or aim which one has realized may be best approached with a soul that has grown relatively immune to the intellectually limiting effects of ordinary social goods and comforting connections.

One important implication of this second point (that the desired condition must be grown into) is that true philosophic detachment cannot be achieved without having previously felt those social goods and emotional connections in their full force; that is, one must experience profound attachment (or rather the emotional propensity to such attachment) as a precondition for achieving genuine detachment. This is why nihilism, the bland denial of any ultimate truth, goodness, or beauty, which leads to cynicism and a diminutive kind of self-importance, is antithetical to the most serious life. The seed of such a life always germinates in a soil of naïve enthusiasm, and only from these roots may the soul begin its journey “away from” naiveté and enthusiasm, or rather into ever-higher levels of naïve enthusiasm — the journey Socrates depicts in The Symposium, somewhat fancifully but profoundly, as an “erotic ascent.”

And from this there follows another implication, already suggested by the first point, above. The compulsion to “cut away social attachments,” far from indicating a firm sense of spiritual mission, actually reveals a soul that knows it has not found the higher and more desirable path. For that higher path, once recognized and embarked on in earnest, becomes a sort of compulsion unto itself. More than a compulsion, in fact — something closer to an all-encompassing love and obsession. For a soul in this state of elevated focus, there will be little need — and less need all the time — for any negative and artificial act of “cutting away.” Rather, alternative sources of potential attraction will quite naturally, without any forcible act of divestiture being required, tend to recede to minor distractions or lesser diversions in the mind. The pleasures, comforts, and easy satisfactions of ordinary social existence simply fall away of their own accord, which is to say that their all-too-earthbound siren song becomes muted and distant to the heart of one whose attention is increasingly aimed at the stars, the cycles of motion and time, and the eternal ideas. 

To a mind so obsessed, there will be little capable of drawing him away from his noblest aims, which will be pursued not as a duty or discipline, but with all the natural purposiveness of an animal instinct. His universe, increasingly, will be comprised of the murky but tantalizing truth he perceives in the distance, the intellectual strains and struggles of the man on an urgent but endless mission, and the rare compatible minds with whom he can intermittently share his investigations or the mutual support of spiritual alliance on this path so unknown and unattractive to normal society.

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