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Pathways to Philosophy

Philosophical considerations
on discourse/ praxis

by Martin O'Hagan


In 1969 what are euphemistically called the Ulster Troubles raised their ugly collective heads for the nth time in the last 200 years. As a young man coming to terms with the pointlessness of a provincial bourgeois existence it was to give meaning and even purpose.

I left school at 15 and found my sense of freedom stifled in what I began to feel was an absurd existence. There had to be something more than living for the weekend and the invasion of bars and dance halls listening to the awful show bands.

The troubles began with police men beating apparently innocent marchers off the Derry Bridge. Pictures of a thorn walking stick-wielding out of breath RUC Inspector repeatedly beating a peaceful protester found a ready comparison in people's minds with the more harsh south African regime. Sharpeville was just a few years before.

Looking back, his pleads for the common sense, 'one man, one vote' falling on deaf ears of the repressive Police now seem a carefully choreographed piece of political propaganda. It was mild by more violent standards that arose in the coming years.

It nevertheless launched me and thousands of other young impressives. The Vietnam war protests, the students revolt of 1968 and the American black civil rights appealed to us hopeful for a brave new world. And it wonderfully dove-tailed with ideals of the bourgeois revolutionaries of the 1798 rebellion with their demands for freedom and equality of the marketplace. The call of ancient sectarian sirens of holy Catholic Ireland failed to find a willing ear among those like me who instinctively knew there had to be something other.

I began my twenty year journey which would lead me into Marxism of the Positivistic school that was the basis of official Marxist states. But which would also justify my opposition to the physical force men of the PIRA who couldn't turn away from the sirens which turned out to be the banshee and her keening for the dead.

It would also help me to rationalise why killing may not always be wrong from an Ulster political perspective. It was right for the black PJ wearing youngsters of the VC to blow to kingdom come young GI's. It was not that syndrome that condoned faraway wars while condemning the conflict next door. In contrast to Lenin's pronouncements, there was no such thing as just and unjust wars. Rather they were necessary or unnecessary. The war against Hitler was necessary but the American war in Vietnam was not necessary. What was necessary was the defeat by force of arms of the mighty war machine of the US.

In Ulster it seemed natural that the British Army had to be opposed because in the 1970's it operated a repressive regime interning hundreds and at one point several thousand men and women who were never convicted of any crime.

Soldiers had shot dead 13 people on the streets of Derry in one particular incident. But in general soldiers had shot dozens of others in equally controversial circumstances. As in any war, though, all sides suffer and no one has a monopoly.

Coming from a Catholic background and having been probably the last generation to experience the rigours of a Catholic education before the radical innovations of Vatican Two, I felt my Marxism as the great relief. It was only later that I was horrified to find Russell insisting that my Marxism may have been my Catholicism by other means. Meanwhile, everything became relative. Everything I took for granted had its basis among human beings and not somewhere up on Mount Sinai cut out in tablets of stone.

And if I could justify shooting another human being on political grounds then my morals had their feet of clay. Although it was to be two decades before I heard about the Sophist Protagoras, I acted as if man was the measure of all things and I was that man. Morality beaten into us by bullying Christian Brothers was no longer a restraining force. Years of brow beating fell away like a dark cloak and there was the illusion of liberation.

The troubles had begun as a romantic adventure of youth. The words of Wordsworth continued to echo in our ears that to be young was very heaven. But years of gaol and needless deaths and hardship bred cynicism. Marxism of the Positivistic kind failed to answer moral and psychological questions. Indeed such questions were petty bourgeois; they belonged to the anti-vivisection lobby, as GPU interrogator Ivanov screamed at Rubashov in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon.

As imprisoned revolutionaries we were told that book was heresy. It underlined what many had now begun to suspect. The conflict was not a struggle to rid us of the hated bourgeois overlords, complete the Irish bourgeois revolution and clear the decks for a 'proper' revolution. It had degenerated into a brutal sectarian campaign of assassination.

Freedom from the daily grind of prison life run on strict military lines was welcome. After years of incarceration the outside had become the panacea to all my ills. The fear and loathing, the choking claustrophobia of over a hundred men sharing two and a half standard Nissan huts, the powerlessness of year in year out sharing the same half acre of rough tarmac on a former runway, left its scars.

The war began again but by now the so-called best years were over and age indicated it was a game for younger men. The drift into Quietism contrasted with the heady days of red flags and tramping feet. The Marxism remained in the background to justify wheeler-dealer moves. Morality no longer mattered when life on the dole offered no alternative. In fact, doing the 'double' became a sort of Robin Hood adventure, a facet of the class war, and dodging the dole snoops was a game.

There was urgent need to get out of this humiliating situation. Education offered a way but it was related to the struggle which was now the politics of the parish pump and local government. This was the nearest we got to real democracy. A vote for a councillor was a vote for better burial arrangement and bin collection and a tidy park.

Class issues and Marxism can't survive in a bitter bigotry that characterised politics in this part of the planet. The alternative is isolation and in-fighting. Brendan Behan, the Dublin playwright, once noted that when the Irish form an organisation the first item on the agenda is a split. There was a split: me and the rest of the party. Someone decided that I had a disruptive attitude whatever that was.

I felt a great sense of relief as I cast aside the scribbled note that heralded my abrupt departure after 13 years of struggle, and lay back in bed and had a quick doze before getting up. I was sick of it all. There were more important issues to be faced...such as me. We had never been allowed to consider me. It was a queer dialectic that considered one half of the contradiction between the self and the rest.

The 1990's dawned with myself in a secure job as a reporter in one of the popular tabloids. Money was no longer a problem. I wasn't rich but there was a steady wage. My mind began to wander again — probably the onset of middle age. I looked for reasons and discovered nothing so far caught my imagination. I returned to Queen's in search of this grail of sorts. I came across the Stoics and the rest of the Greeks, whose approach to philosophy flew in the face of the discourse that was being promoted. Philosophy as a way of life interested me. It was a mode of existing in the world that should transform my mediocre being.

In Symposium Plato had shown that Socrates could be identified with Eros, the son of Poros (expedient) and Penia (poverty). Eros lacked wisdom but he did know how to acquire it. Philosophy took on the form of an exercise of thought, will and the totality of being. Its goal is wisdom.

The search was for a way of life that brought peace of mind, inner freedom and cosmic consciousness. In Xenocrates the notion of philosophy curing mankind's anguish is explicit. Also in Epicurus who said, 'We must not suppose that any other object is to be gained from the knowledge of the phenomena of the sky...than peace of mind and a sure confidence.'

During the Middle Ages the scholastic university was dominated by theology. Here professionals trained other professionals. Education was no longer directed towards people with the sole purpose of becoming fully developed beings. It is no accident that between the 16th and 18th Centuries genuine philosophical advances were made outside the universities. We have just to look at Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche and Leibniz.

It was from the end of the 18th Century that the new philosophy made its appearance within the universities. This was a philosophy without the trappings of theology. With a few rare exceptions such as Nietzsche or Schopenhauer, philosophy becomes a discourse and begins from a different environment than Ancient philosophy.

Schopenhauer wrote that university philosophy was mere fencing in front of a mirror. He claimed its goal is to give students opinions that suit the local establishment He wrote, 'And yet if there is one thing desirable in this world, it is to see a ray of light fall onto the darkness of our lives shedding some of the light on the mysterious enigma of our existence.'

I realised that while this is true it is not the whole truth. There was a need for serious philosophical discourse if just to clarify matters. I found Hegel interesting on this point. Not the fellow Marxists love to rubbish, but the real Hegel in all his turgid style that obfuscates any sense. To gleam Hegelian meaning is to bend the mind. To open it to other possibilities and potentialities.

His concept of the Whole did make sense but his sense of morality I found compelling. In Kant I discovered a Stoic practice that embodied an art of living to be found in Epictetus, Roman slave and philosopher. There should not be a separation between theory and praxis. For the first time Marx's words that philosophers only interpret the world...etc. took on a new meaning. It was the beginning of a return to Ancient philosophy as a philosophy of practical wisdom. Could this be the Hegelian metaphysical circle?

I went in search of meaning and discovered a potential for morality and inner peace. Marxism is no longer the be-all and end-all but a tool to help cope and understand a world rapidly changing in several respects. My model, if that is the proper term, is Augustine who by philosophically re-examining his life came to his own conclusions. His wisdom did not merely make him know it made him 'be' in a different way.

© Marie O'Hagan 2001

Martin O'Hagan IN MEMORIAM