Wisdom In Context

All thought, as expressed, is in part a temperamental response to circumstances. Thus it is a mistake to imagine any single great thought is The Thought, unless it be a thought arisen from universal circumstances. This is why all searches eventually return to Greece, which, partly due to its being the first flower of mature poetry, philosophy, and politics, appeals to all thinking men as the closest our race has yet experienced to such universal (non-particularized) circumstances.

For the rest of us, and in truth even for the ancient Greeks themselves, philosophy’s historical developments have less in common with the stages of a progressive evolution than with the varying moods of an individual man, as we track his soul through the changing contexts of his life — including the changing surroundings as influenced by his own most recent thinking. Just as with the man in his evolving practical circumstances, so too with the shifting ideas that silently shift the Earth on its axis: All thought is responding to the world the thinker encounters, which means the world as a particular time-bound set of obstacles to be overcome, skirted around, or exploded.

Thinking inevitably occurs in a context — which is not, contrary to the historicists’ convenient delusion, to say that thought is nothing but an expression of context. More accurate to say that thought — by which I mean exclusively such rarefied intellectual flight as is worthy of the name of thought — is a stretching out away from context; the soul’s defiance of the gravity of context.

Not only, then, are ideas not reducible to their time and place, but it would be equally mistaken to imagine that all thought is relativized by its contextualism, such that the true, the good, and the beautiful become nothing but illusory names for contextual subjectivity. Nietzsche and Marx, for example, were responding to the same context, namely the German-led flight from nature and the natural will to live on this Earth, prompted by the German idealists’ intellectual dread of losing Spirit under the blunt assault of modern materialist science. And yet Nietzsche responded with a mad rush at life and freedom, Marx with a mad rush to death and slavery. Does this suggest that the will to life and the will to death are equally valuable, equally philosophical? Does it not rather suggest that there are expressions of natural love and strength suited to any (even the most anti-rational) circumstance, and likewise expressions of unnatural hatred and weakness unsuited to any circumstance?

Context is important to understanding, but it is not a substitute for understanding. To see only his context is to fail to see the man at all, if he is a man worth seeing. Wisdom has its winding, foggy paths, which wend their way through life, norms, and history step by step, turn by turn: sometimes tentatively, as one negotiating a muddy patch; sometimes lightly, as one racing effortlessly down a hill; sometimes with sweat and strain, as one persevering through a long uphill climb in the hot sun. 

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