The Personal is Philosophical: Plato, Dostoevsky, Berdyaev, and Tarkovsky
“What I love very much is your being yourself style, and I wish that you keep this skill and manage to share it with all around, and students, too. This is something very demanded (and rare) in philosophy and vitally important at our Teas [with Berdyaev] in particular.” So wrote Sofia Androsenko in very kind… The post The Personal is Philosophical: Plato, Dostoevsky, Berdyaev, and Tarkovsky appeared first on VoegelinView.




“What I love very much is your being yourself style, and I wish that you keep this skill and manage to share it with all around, and students, too. This is something very demanded (and rare) in philosophy and vitally important at our Teas [with Berdyaev] in particular.” So wrote Sofia Androsenko in very kind email to me.[1]
Good philosophy retains its connection with the thinking, feeling, intuiting person with his particular character and limitations. To exist is to be limited, after all. The meaning of the universe, if it is to have meaning, is its meaning to the human being. Christianity endorses the human and personal by having God personified in Christ.
Plato is a clear presence in much of his philosophical writing. There is something appealing and endearing about his explicit disavowal of omniscience. Many times, he engages in explicit myth creation and writes “something like this seems to be true.” Plato avoids the dreaded first-person pronoun by inventing his character “Socrates,” a Socrates who diverges more and more from his real-life model as Plato matures as a thinker. Quite wonderfully, Plato’s actual philosophical vision extends beyond even Socrates, and Plato has Diotima be the one who provides the missing spiritual insight to Socrates in The Symposium. Also, as Stanley Rosen pointed out in Plato’s Symposium, although the final epiphany and breakthrough is reserved for Socrates/Diotima, what the other characters say in their hymns of praise, their eulogies, for Love, are not devoid of significance, meaning and truth. Plato both parodies the doctor Eryximachus and has him discuss love from a medical point of view, with his déformation professionelle, but manages to give his thoughts profundity and poetry – with love being compared to right order in the Cosmos, physical health, and the cycling of the seasons. Eryximachus distinguishes between ordered love and insatiable discordant love, and even brings in the notion of good music contributing to harmony within soul, complete with a ribald reference to the “rhythm” in music being connected to love.
The director Andrei Tarkovsky states: “I am seeking a principle of montage that will allow me to expose the subjective logic – the thought, the dream, the memory – instead of the logic of the subject.” He added: “I’ve noticed, from my experience, if the external, emotional construction of images in a film is based on the filmmaker’s own memory, on the kinship of one’s personal experience with the fabric of the film, then the film will have the power to affect those who see it.”[2] These aims are connected to his larger ambition: redeeming the soul of man. “I believe…that an enormous task has been entrusted to art. This is the task of resurrecting spirituality.” “To me, man in his substance, is essentially a spiritual being and the meaning of his life consists in developing his spirituality. If he fails to do so, society deteriorates.” “Art should be there to remind man that he is a spiritual being, that he is part of an infinitely larger spirit to which he will return in the end.”[3]
Tarkovsky is “Stalker,” leading Professor and Writer through the Zone into the core of the spiritual. That is what all artists, musicians, filmmakers, and philosophers should be trying to do. The religious journey exists in the interior, in the soul. The transformation of perspective into one of the most intense life ends up altering the subject. The subjective is the personal. The beauty of things “out there” points to its creator, both human and divine.
It occurred to me, reading the words of Tarkovsky, and thinking about what Sofia had said about me, that all the people I love most, outside of friends and family, have this very personal aspect to their work. You become interested in the person creating the art or philosophy not just the actual products of their creative acts. The defects of the work reflect the limitations of the artist while on the other hand, to appreciate beauty there must be something beautiful within you: likewise with the artistic creation. In reading Plato, Dostoevsky, Berdyaev and in watching Tarkovsky movies,[4] one meets the human. The humanity of the creator and the humanity of everyone. The best Jeff Bridges performances somehow bring to mind the seemingly empty and banal word “humanity.” “So, this is what it means to be a human being.” A key aspect of this is vulnerability. The soft interior, when we stop hiding behind “objectivity.” Musicians are aware that singing is far more personal and vulnerable than playing a musical instrument. Someone’s voice is partly the product of the shape of their skull, throat, their breath control, and vocal cords. You are the instrument upon which you play. To hate that sound seems more a rejection of the person than to disdain his guitar playing.
Thomas F. Bertonneau instructed me to avoid the first-person pronoun saying, not in so many words, that there is always an implied author anyway. One can tell what kind of person wrote something regardless of the apparent impersonality of the resulting philosophy. He specifically mentioned Plato, who never appears in his own dialogues. But, Plato, as mentioned, uses “Socrates” to sidestep the issue and Plato was a great artist in depicting believable human speech. Contra my dear missed friend, I think I’m going to relinquish the affectation of the impersonal to an even greater extent. As I have commented elsewhere, the kind of philosophy I write draws upon personal experience. Knowledge comes from personal experience, novels/film/art, science, and religious experience. It is not possible to pretend that personal experience happened to someone else and the passive voice seems often as tiresome as using the first person. If it is narcissistic, so be it. Trying to reintroduce the spiritual into a fallen world is messianic anyway.
Reading a Dostoevsky novel gives one a sense of the thinking feeling aspects of its characters and they retain a felt connection with Dostoevsky himself. It is hard to know how much this was intentional, or whether he just could not help himself. He had within him the spiritual seeker and the absolute reprobate, having been a gambling addict and half ruining the life of his wife in the process, nearly as badly as Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment who indirectly forces his daughter Sonya to prostitute herself to pick up the economic slack caused by his dereliction of fatherly duties. Dostoevsky is as much the dissolute father in The Brothers Karamazov as the Alyosha.
Berdyaev too has this personal quality to his writing. In fact, his philosophy of Personalism embraced and endorsed the necessity of doing so. Religious men have a feminized brain which emphasizes verbal acuity at the expense of the mathematical. And this brain will bring intuition and emotion to the fore, not merely the logical.
A student writes: “I really love your class and the articles you write. I was assigned a different professor at first that asked us to buy a textbook, that I did read through about halfway before I was assigned to you. I was pleasantly surprised that we are learning from your articles instead of a textbook. So, can you please send me the article you wrote for the Consciousness part 1 assignment? I would really like to read it just for fun, even if I can’t complete the assignment for it. Thank you for your time. I really like how you approach philosophy. Your articles are fun to read compared to the philosophy essays I was reading in the textbook.”
I am, of course, mostly filtering the philosophical tradition through my sensibility, which is one that attempts to emphasize wonder, mystery, and the spiritual. It is partisan, but so was Plato, the father of it all. It will not be every student’s cup of tea, but, there are other professors out there. Teaching a supposedly neutral bland impersonal philosophy class seems inherently boring to all concerned, and also involves bad faith. The choice of readings already determines much of what will go on, and letting some random textbook writer do it for you makes your own attempts at philosophical self-education seem pointless. My own professors in New Zealand were positivists to a man. Any deviation from empiricism was ruthlessly quashed. They even managed to ruin Plato by subjecting his arguments to “analysis” stripped of context. Some of them are quite bad. It was a relief to discover later that Socrates used devious polemical techniques when dealing with cynical interlocutors and sophists – those famed for being able to make the worse argument seem the better – but argued in good faith without tricks when his questioner was a young man really searching for the truth. Given that the city of Athens executed his friend and mentor, it is surprising that Plato managed to keep his sense of grievance moderated to the extent that he did. All these verbal tussles with rhetoricians are far removed from a debating club when one remembers this event in Plato’s life.  I do emphasize that everything I think and write is a work in progress in destined for revision, so the point of my classes is not indoctrination but to model sincere inquiry with the goal of spiritual development.


[1] Sofia Androsenko organizes international Zoom meetings with a guest speaker on the topic of Nikolai Berdyaev’s philosophy. Used with permission.
[2] p. xii. Andrei Tarkovsky Interviews, ed. John Gianvito, University Press of Mississippi.
[3] Ibid, p. xiv.
[4] Perhaps C. S. Lewis could join the list.

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