Thursday, February 10, 2011

In Your Eyes

For here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.

- Rilke

I've never found Descartes terribly interesting, but I read something last night that I liked: in a letter to his friend Marin Mersenne, he mentioned having begun trying to live his life under the motto, "To live well, you must live unseen." Of course, having seen the persecution of Galileo and the burning at the stake of more than a few philosophers and heretics, he could have very well meant that to live at all, you must avoid the wrathful attention of the Church. But still, my thought was wow, how very Taoist of him!

The people of the world excitedly run about as if they were going to miss the yearly, royal, sacrificial feast, or as if they were going to be the last one to climb a high tower on a beautiful spring day.
I alone remain quiet and indifferent.
I anchor my being to that which existed before Heaven and Earth were formed.
I alone am innocent and unknowing, like a newborn babe.
Unoccupied by worldly cares, I move forward to nowhere.
The people of the world have more than enough.
I alone appear to have nothing.
The people of the world appear shrewd and wise.
I alone look foolish.
I like to be forgotten by the world and left alone.

It also occurred to me that his motto was a much more succinct way of saying what I was trying to get at in this post. Being "seen" can be a description of the ways in which our identities are fixed and reinforced in the sight of others. For people who think of philosophy not as scholarly hair-splitting over the ultimate nature of things, but as the search for how to live well, how to best pursue truth and integrity, the weight and pressure of other people's attention can be a hindrance, trapping us in egotistic responses to their expectations.

3 comments:

noerl said...

There is no logical barrier which prevents one from living with others' expectations and becoming enlightened anyway - maintaining the same physical existence one has. In fact, if one's goal is to give up desire, then all actions which seek to gain something for oneself - like "enlightenment" - are counterproductive and illogical. It's a wild goose chase in any case, but that's life.

The Vile Scribbler said...

It's impossible to live in a vacuum, totally free of other people's attention anyway. And I would never claim that "giving up desire" is either possible or, uh, desirable. I just take what Descartes (and Lao Tzu) is saying as a commentary on ambition, among other things.

noel said...

We are social animals, so my goal of detachment in situ, as it were, is probably in vain. But I'm pulling for a world in which everyone goes about his normal business, while turning into Buddha, anyway.