A Socratic Summa Summarum
of the Secondary City
I now offer my own Socratic summa summarum of the first 50 pages of Real Presences:
The examined life that manifests only the talk about the talk about talk is not worth living.
That is all.
It does not take a great deal of talk to express the idea, but the idea touches upon all possible expressions of interpreting art and upon the art of our own living. For Socrates, our own individual thinking and creating means more than merely becoming an mimetic echo of what we have been told. Fortunately for most of us, there is no need to have Steiner's breathtaking knowledge of the immense history of literature, music, art, religion, and science to get this. However, we do need to excel in knowing ourselves. Socrates saw the examined life as a continuing quest for knowledge that could be applied to becoming a better human being and citizen. For Socrates, the examined life was about a life filled with repeated quests for knowledge in service to self improvement. Continuously examining our own ideas, beliefs, character and habits for the purpose of bettering ourselves is a lifestyle that Socrates believed was capable of helping us live well and the only life worth living. In this summa one principle, well attended to, affects all of our living. One principle brings forth the living element of real presence in the arts and life. The fullness of the human experience of art, and of living well, is more than talking a lot about others who talk a lot. The meaning and value of our experience of art is much more than the abstractions of our talk and ideas represented in interpretive and explicatory language. Ideas that have value to human living must be ideas that are lived. Beauty is a truth of living minds that can only be expressed through an attentive and living participation in life.
In Real Presences, Steiner is very concerned about the extraordinary dominance of unending academic talk and its destructive effect on the quality of our experience and understanding of art. Heading into the close of part one, Steiner illustrates that this issue has a historical scope beyond the academic study of the arts by discussing three "moments" in western tradition (pp. 40-49). These moments are the rabbinic tradition of commentary on scripture, medieval scholasticism, and Freudian psychoanalysis. In these three moments, there is not much that is innate to their theories and principles of practice to service the limiting of talk. In order to put an end to endless commentary all three must step outside of their talk related focus in order to spend additional non-talk energies. Human cognitive diversity is the key to resolving problems with endless talk.
The rabbinic response to endless commentary on scripture is, according to Steiner, to replace continued talk with moral action and enlightened behavior. Medieval scholasticism's passion for study and writing was a manifestation of the conflicted dance between the human impulse to learn and say all that can be learned and said, and its relationship to the church's legislative attempts to ensure a limit is drawn against the propagation of a schism inducing diversity of talk. These church imposed limits involved commitments to real political action as well as talk in order to put a limit on endless scholarly talk. These two "moment's" deal with endless talk by diversifying the cognitive balance of expended energies. Both employed action to in order to limit endless talk.
Steiner focuses a harsher light on the interminability of talk in the Freudian psychoanalytic process. In this third moment of history, Steiner does not focus on how the talk generated by the psychoanalytic process has been limited, but focuses more on the impossibility of limiting the psychoanalytic talking. My interpretation of the slight deepening of criticism in Steiner's treatment of the third moment is that it is due to the fact that this third moment in western tradition deals with what amounts to an attempt to construct the academic study of the mind. Freudian psychoanalysis, or any psychotherapy, is a process that becomes useless and sterile if its verbalizing tendencies are left unchecked. As a meaningful experience of art must be more than academic talk, a meaningful experience of life requires that we move our commitment to the task of living well beyond our talk about our conceptual and verbal representations of ourselves. To live well, there must be a greater commitment of diverse energies to our living that naturally puts an end to endless talk. To live well, there must be an art of living. The secondary city is not just a dwelling for the deterioration of our experience of art. Steiner's criticism of the secondary city of the academic study of the arts speaks to our individual and our civilization's desperate need to incorporate a genuine artistic spirit into our living so that the sharing of beauty as well as our thinking about the justice and virtue of human character are not just an insipid mass of talk. Beauty, justice and virtue must be lived realities that reflect the spirit of artistic creativity. This creativity is desperately needed if humanity is to survive. In the broadest scope, the need to limit talk by balancing our energies requires us to realize an active and diverse spread of attentiveness and action. This cognitive diversity must be engaged along with our talk. The success of this venture finds its best chance on a foundation that is shared by all humanity. That foundation is the universal human quest for self knowledge in service to being the best we can be and living as well as possible. Without genuine self knowledge, we are merely mimetic robots repeating the talk that is handed down to us from our religions, philosophies, families, and societies.
The scope of the problems raised by Steiner about the academic study of the arts encompasses much more than a mere three "moments" in western tradition. It encompasses almost everything we know. Therefore, the solution to those problems must be fundamental to the experience of all humanity. Since the foundation of all possible solutions to the issues raised in Real Presences is in the human quest for self knowledge, we must consider an interesting divergence of ideas about the self that shows us the way. In Socratic style, prior to delving into the questions about the details of self knowledge, it may be worthwhile to ask, "What is the self?". Assuming the importance so many people in history have placed on self knowledge, this is a very natural question. If one values the idea of self knowledge, it assumes there is some object of "self" to which this knowledge is relevant. But there is another view of "self" that is relevant to addressing the most fundamental scope of Steiner's concerns.
Alan Watts, a philosopher and teacher, had a very different idea of the self. In his lecture, "Not What Should Be But What Is", Watts dismisses our idea that there is a real object we think of as "I".
He said, "I wonder what you mean when you use the word "I"...I have come to the conclusion that what most civilized people mean by that word is a hallucination, that is to say a false sense of personal identity that is at complete variance with the facts of nature."
Watts regards our internal concept of self as a symbolic construction of identity, a construction of concepts. In his view, what we really are is so much more. What ever our self is, it cannot be fully encapsulated in our talk about our ideas of ourselves. This human tendency to encapsulate perceived reality into words and talk also affects our view of the world. Words and concepts, when overemphasized as the only medium of interpretation, become the symbols that replace the real world and the knowledge of our real self.
Watts said, "We confuse the world as it is with the world as it is thought about, talked about, and figured about. And the difference between these two is vast. And when we are not aware of ourselves except in a symbolic way, we are not aware of ourselves at all. We are like people eating menus instead of dinners...So then we get back to the question of what do we mean by "I". Obviously we mean our symbol of our selves. Ourselves (our actual selves) in this case is the whole psycho-physical organism conscious and unconscious plus its environment. That is your real self."
Watts comment that our over conceptualized and verbalized understanding of the world and ourselves makes us "like people eating menus instead of dinners" communicates the same principle that describes what happens when one relies on the secondary journalistic talk of a movie review instead of giving our rapt attention to the real presence of the movie itself or relies on academic theory to interpret art instead of bringing the fullness of our real presence into the real presence of art itself. With regard to the subject of self knowledge, we do the same thing to the interpretation of our own being as the academic study of the arts does to the interpretation of art. Self knowledge is not just related to this issue because our fear of our own beauty is the beginning of our fear of all beauty (as discussed in the artistic commentary section). Our capacity to allow theoretical and symbolic construction to dominate our understanding is a basic and pervasive human habit that we apply to all things including ourselves. We have a persistent predilection for allowing ideas, talk about ideas, and the talk about the talk of ideas to become the reality itself. Words become the pixels that make up a digital picture of life and we convince ourselves that the assemblage of words allows us to see and sufficiently experience the realities we talk about. If our self understanding is just a collection of verbally expressed ideas that form a concept of self, then we are living under the influence of a symbolic construction that will always be far from the full complexity of the truth. To live and labor under the exclusive influence of such a limited sense of self is to live out the elaboration of a bad lie.
Secondary talk is not just an issue with the academic study of the arts. It is a fundamental human preoccupation that utilizes our ability to reduce complex realities to simpler concepts, and those concepts to specific expressions of words. So where does this leave us? If we desire to engage in a quest for self knowledge as we so rightly should, how do we avoid getting trapped in our own personal secondary city as we seek to interpret ourselves in the art of our own living?
In the artistic commentary section of the essay prior to this summa, I began talking of the importance of cognitive diversity as it pertains to the academic study of the arts. Steiner's historical moments regarding topics other than art all point to a cognitive diversity of human expression that goes beyond words. These two emphases point to the answer to the question of self knowledge. Connecting the idea of cognitive diversity to self knowledge I find that, just as Steiner's issues with the academic study of the arts is found to have a scope beyond that topic, self knowledge has a scope within all knowledge that is more than most people imagine. (especially if your idea of self knowledge is restricted to that which is conceptual and verbal). Bruce Lee put it most succinctly. Lee said that "All knowledge is self knowledge". The key to understanding this is to realize that underlying self knowledge is the broadest scope of human expression. Lee emphasized that what his students really wanted, and what he taught, was not reducible to the specifics of the methods of fighting. It was about their human need to express themselves. Lee said, "But to express yourself honestly, that is the hardest thing." Recognizing the priority and value of the role of honest self expression in all our learning about self and the world leads us naturally to greater cognitive diversity in our living. Cognitive diversity, well integrated through experience, is the wellspring of human wisdom. Knowledge is not fully knowledge until it is knowledge expressed and there is no such thing as willful self expression that is not also a form of, or derived of, knowledge. The most important truths about our real self are truths that are not limited to the dominion of isolating talk but are truths that are lived out in a medium of extraordinary cognitive diversity.
I experimented with self expression and cognitive diversity in my research for this essay. Expressing myself on the keyboard in my attentiveness to Rachmaninoff in the last section of this essay and Beethoven in the next section provided me with experiences and insights relative to my topic that were richer and more useful than reading words about academic theories alone could have offered. I not only learned about my subject of study, but also learned of myself as I expressed myself. The self knowledge I gained was not a composition of words, but a collection of new experiences gained by self expressions through which I did something that I never did before.
Honest self expression is the primary exercise in the quest for self knowledge. Honest self expression is available to us in everything we do. Self expression is the gateway to self knowledge. All babies know this. They are born without self knowledge and zero sense of "I", but they are born instinctually knowing how to express themselves relative to their development. In the quest for self knowledge, living out Steiner's thesis that we must bring ourselves into the real presence of art takes on its largest dimension. Honest self expression is not just the gateway to self knowledge. It is also the soul of human integrity. The real summa summarum, the compendium of all things pertaining to Steiner's criticism of the secondary city, cannot be written in large volumes of words. It is not a symbolic construction. That is why I only used one sentence to summarize this summa. To begin work on the full summa summarum of all possible affirmations and negations of Steiner's thesis, we must engage ourselves in living human expression to bring ourselves into the real presence of the greatest masterwork of art, which is life itself. The text is a living text. To write this living text requires that we become willful artists who create the work of art that is the unfolding of our own lives. Every human being is both a masterwork of art and the master artist in the art of her own living. The quality of attentiveness, hospitality and respect we give to ourselves and to one another should reflect this truth.
The Central Principle of Steiner's Solution in Real Presences
The art of honest self expression, which is the heart and soul of the art of living, is most usefully guided in its practice by Socrates' ideal of living the examined life. This examined life cannot be exclusively governed by the talk about ideas (as Plato's conceptually abstract and talk dominated presentation would seem to suggest). Self knowledge is more than our concepts of who we think we are. The human knowledge of justice is more than how we define justice with words. The examined life is a living practice that is both an honest expression of our instinct to live well and an encounter with real presence as we seek to express our understandings. It is a living expression of our being as we bring the question of being into our living awareness. I translate this understanding into one principle that stands as the structure of Steiner's solution to the problem of the academic study of the arts. That principle is:
In order raise the quality of our experience of the arts to its highest point, the question of being must stand at the center of our relationship to the arts.
Humans are the only species on earth that we know for sure has the capacity to question being. What is it? What is the nature of our being? This questioning is more than words circulating endlessly. It is a living expression of exploration as we seek to live well. It is the heart of the examined life that beats when we seek to improve the justice and nature of the human character of our own being. The fruit of human authenticity that comes when we allow ourselves to question the nature of being is manifested in full when we attempt to live out the results of our inquiry. Art excels at calling us to join the artist in bringing forth the question of our own being in our experience of art. The examined life calls us to join in the question of being as we seek to live well.
Like the one sentence summa for the first 50 pages of Real Presences, the full compendium of affirmations and negations in the art of living cannot be written down in a text. It must be created in the living text of human expression. The information needed to begin the writing of this text will be discussed through an examination of how the question of being stands at the center of Socrates' ideal of living the examined life. This will begin in Part III with a discussion that begins with the question of what it means to be human. The examination ends in Part IV with a proposal of a systematic framework for understanding of the relationship between being and time that is based on our reading of Buckminster Fuller's Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking. But first, we move into another musical experiment in which contemplating the nature of my own musical being takes on a subtle dimension. In the next session, I will describe a similar piano performance experiment with a Beethoven sonata where, through giving my attention to very slight difference found in the interiority of my own mind, I embraced a new experience of self expression that gave me insights on the relationship between transcendence and immanence (another theme in Real Presences) as it relates to the human quest for meaning. The relationship between the whole of being and our personal being is illuminated in the immanence of our capacity to question being.