And still more Religious Sensibility and Knowledge

This will be it on this topic for while.  We can all breath deeply; or reach for the text itself.

4. The immediacy of wonder, awe, or sympathy is akin to the immediacy of love. Reflective detachment and concentration resists such immediacy. Nietzsche has a place for love of things and the world. It’s not enough for an intellectual to offer detached critique. The philosopher can’t always be “dynamite,” breaking apart all that’s false and illusory.[1] Writing in the wake of Emerson, Nietzsche makes a plea for life-affirming reevaluations, and says we’ll find worthy objects of affirmation if we assemble those things around us that we love.

What have you truly loved up to now, what has elevated your soul, what has mastered it and at the same time delighted it?  Place these venerated objects before you in a row, and perhaps they will yield for you, through their nature and their sequence, a law, the fundamental law of your true self. [2]

On his walks Thoreau sought those things he could love, even those things that had slipped away or were lost – the fish under ice, the birds not yet returned from the south, the blossoms not quite ready to bud forth again. He was attentive to things present and to things absent, things lost, or leaving — the fox cavorting across the ice, the lost hound and bay horse.[3] The dove is lost, but still heard, and chanticleer will crow. We need an unfashionable love of the world, even love for things that for the moment are lost. The lost or eclipsed world is not a permanent dark but in a phase of eclipse. The eclipse of the dove’s ‘coo’, or of the presence of God or the good, is always partial, passing with the seasons, never permanent. Thoreau had a faithful conviction that despite losses — even catastrophes — joy and serenity have not reached their final hour.

Thoreau’s abundant hope and good cheer were not based on an estimate that the future was rosy or that the past had been fine, or that on balance things were better than worse. Who would dare bet on happiness on the eve of a great uncivil slaughter? Thoreau’s hope was absolute, not contingent on the realization of one sort of future rather than another. Relative hopes and faiths are contingent on outcomes. If you don’t get what you hoped for, you’re thrown into dismay or despair. By staying free of expectations, absolute hope or faith maintains poise.

Thoreau vows in Walden that he won’t write an Ode to Dejection – despite all around him that already is, or threatens, disaster.[4] He survived the catastrophes of his brother’s death, “little Waldo’s” a month later, John Brown’s some years later still. He survived the shameful humiliation of the Black tradesman Anthony Burns, recaptured in Boston under the Fugitive Slave Law. He didn’t preach serenity and joy. He found them under leaves and in a heron’s flight, in the least meadow or bobbing cranberry in the marsh. “I have never had a deeper and more memorable experience of life—its great serenity, than while listening to the trill of a tree-sparrow among the huckleberry bushes after a shower.”[5]

He wrote that although John died an agonizing death, John was also serene and grateful to have lived.

Here is Hannah Arendt on love and gratitude:

gratitude for life having been given at all is the spring of remembrance, for a life is cherished even in misery . . .  What ultimately stills the fear of death is not hope or desire [for specific outcomes], but remembrance and gratitude . . .[6]

These words might have been Thoreau’s. He had written to Blake in 1856, some time after John’s death and embroiled in the catastrophes sliding toward civil war, “I am grateful for what I am & have. My thanksgiving is perpetual.”[7] Living philosophically is to live with simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust, and with a daily practice of writing and walking that yields serenity, remembrance, love, and gratitude, capped by a knack for sympathy with intelligence, and for memorializing life.



[1] “I am not a man, I am dynamite” Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, “Why I am a Destiny,” trans. Duncan Large (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) 88.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Schopenhauer as Educator,” in Untimely Meditations, ed. Daniel Breazeale, trans R.G. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1997, 129.

[3] “I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove.” Walden, “Economy” 16

[4] Walden, “What I Lived for” 81

[5] Journal 1:469

[6] Hannah Arendt, Love and Saint Augustine (University of Chicago Press, 1996) 52.

[7] Dec 6,1856, The Correspondence


2 comments on “And still more Religious Sensibility and Knowledge

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