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The Last Infirmity of the Noble Mind
by Richard Schain
'The desire for fame is the last infirmity of the noble mind.' This saying from antiquity has a more profound meaning than may be evident at first glance. It is an indication that individuals do not regard their own individuality in a sufficiently serious manner. There is a widespread belief in our culture that if one does not have an impact on his society, his life is without significance, he is a non-entity. This feeling seems to be instinctual in many people since they will go to any length to affect, in one way or another, the world around them. The desire for fame, in all its variegated manifestations, symbolizes this need to feel that one's essential being is a function of his effect on his milieu. The concept of intersubjectivity, popular in philosophy today, is a non-pejorative way of expressing the same idea.
Kant's characterization of a person's existence as a speck of sand in an infinity of time has been amply confirmed by the scientific study of the physical universe. It is impossible to conceive that an individual in his physical being can have any significance in the cosmos it is absurd of imagine otherwise. Thus the persistent attempt of individuals to develop a circle of influence and thus transcend their own miniscule being. The reality is, however, that this effort is not worth the trouble since a hundred, a thousand, a million specks of sand have little more significance than one alone. A sand castle on an endless beach in an infinity of time is soon erased by the elements.
A genuine sense of self-valuation cannot come from one's effect upon society. At best there is the transitory sensation of victory when one has made his mark in the world but this feeling soon passes. There soon appear new conquests, greater discoveries, more brilliant expositions that need to be undertaken. After Alexander conquered the vast Persian empire, he became obsessed by the thought of how many more conquests were still necessary. There are few successful persons who do not experience similar feelings. Fame is usually a fraud, rarely does the famous individual fully deserve the accolades given to him and he experiences the need to justify his reputation by new accomplishments. There is nothing more pathetic than a 'successful' person trying to duplicate his successes, often in areas where he is little capable of doing so. 'Fame enslaves the Gods and Men' is a saying attributed to Heraclitus who, at the dawn of philosophy, perceived the vacuity of worldly success. Even if the attribution may be doubtful, the idea was present among those who valued his ideas.
The quest for fame arises from a lack of valuation of the self. A person who values himself or herself does not dissipate energies by engaging in activities that will bring fame. Human beings are entities that generate thought, thinking reeds as Pascal neatly put it, and it is in their thoughts that they find their reason for being, not in plaudits arising from their milieu. What is thought? By now it is abundantly clear that thought can only be a metaphysical phenomenon. Generations of neurologists, psychologists and computer analysts have had no more success in locating a physical basis for thought than did the eminent pathologist Virchow looking for the soul in the hundreds of brains he dissected. There is simply no way for science to explain the basis of human thought. Because of this, there has been a subtle and often not so subtle effort by white coat philosophers to disparage the concept of self and even deny its existence. If there is no such thing as a metaphysical self, only an assortment of stimulus-response phenomena welded onto an instinctual behavioral apparatus, then little is to be gained by considering this fictitious entity. It is more rewarding to assert one's will to success and the many-faceted forms of power that stem from it.
But the self exists. Descartes' much-maligned dictum, 'I think therefore I am,' is a more profound thought than the carping of his critics. The profoundest person in the history of American philosophical thought (HDT) wrote that the meaning of life lies in our thoughts, all the rest is just the wind whistling in the trees. Thoughts give one a place in a metaphysical plane of reality that is not obtained solely through physical or psychological experiences. Speaking and writing are natural means of developing and clarifying one's thoughts. However, activity arising from the desire for fame is merely the extension of the animal herd instinct into the more sophisticated life evolved in civilization. There is really no difference in kind between the yearning for professional, political or artistic recognition and a wolf wishing to lead or even just be part of a pack of wolves. (And woe to the lone wolf who does not fit into the pack.) As in any pack phenomenon, a key factor in the desire for fame is the acquisition of sexual power; this is well known among authors and academicians. This feature and accumulation of wealth are the main consequences of fame for whatever they are worth.
The appearance of thought is one of the miracles of life, analogous to the emergence of life itself. Biologists can explain how life develops but not why such an improbable event should have occurred in a purely physical universe. Even if life appeared by chance, it is incomprehensible why the earth should not be swarming with simple life forms instead of the incredibly complex and fragile organisms that now exist. Bacteria are far more fitted for survival than is Homo sapiens. Most incomprehensible of all is the phenomenon of thought, which defies understanding using physical models. Inescapably, thought must exist on a different plane of being. Once one rises to the consciousness of this 'metaphysical' plane of being, then a new world-view becomes possible, one that is not purely a function of the vagaries of the social milieu.
Every developed mind is a remarkable occurrence revealing a sphere of reality that goes beyond the material universe. When one considers the many facets of thought imagination, rationality, values, will, emotions, one is awe-struck by the phenomenon of the mind, and even more so by one's own mind with which the individual is acquainted in a unique manner. We need to have reverence for our own minds, for our souls, to fall back upon a more traditional term. It is only the constraints of scientism with its insistence upon an exclusively material reality that inhibits the thinking individual from an appropriate valuation of his own inner self.
The valuation of self is the key to combating the scourge of excessive ambition, which is another way of denoting the desire for fame. The bitch goddess success takes her toll on the human personality. The only ambition that can be allowed free rein is to live the life of the mind, the bios theoretikos of antique Greek philosophy. The individual must center his ambitions on his own mind. Ambition focused elsewhere is a road map to a downward direction of life and degradation of the human potential.
It is probably a form of hubris to think that we limited creatures could have an exact conception of the place of the mind in a metaphysical realm of being. However, one need not denigrate the self by imagining it to be fictitious, or at best, a speck of sand in a limitless universe. A more appropriate conception is that of a microcosm mirroring a macrocosmic reality. 'Atman is Brahman' is the way Hindu scriptures succinctly puts it. Elsewhere I have utilized a metaphor I call the pointillist canvas of eternity in which every living being is imagined as a brushstroke contributing to the entirety of the canvas. Time and space are the dimensions within which the canvas exists; there may be others of which we have no conception as yet. Each brushstroke may be considered as essential to the integrity of the canvas. A flaw may well appear on it when one does not develop his mind to the fullest extent possible.
The metaphor of a pointillist canvas of eternity provides a convenient framework for certain articles of faith to which I subscribe. These are the metaphysical nature of my mind and its importance in the universe. These beliefs have arisen from rational consideration of a long acquaintanceship with life. Furthermore, I have come to think that human beings are thrust into a physical universe in order to gain the experiences necessary for development of the mind. The process is never complete; there is a need for continual experience as long as an individual human life exists.
No doubt there can be psychological reasons put forth to undermine the point of view here expressed. There will always be a Freud or Skinner ready to demolish metaphysical thought. The cult of scientism has dominated philosophy ever since technology has been mechanizing civilized life. But a philosopher betrays his vocation when he is willing to subvert metaphysics for the sake of the prestige of scientific methodology. The philosopher should wear a robe, not a white coat. The very essence of philosophy is the discovery of the metaphysical mind. When a philosopher trades this in for an uncertain membership in the institutions of science and takes on the herd habits accompanying them, he has abandoned his high calling in the cosmos. He has given in to the last infirmity of the noble mind.
1. Richard Schain, In Love With Eternity, 2005
© Richard Schain 2006
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