According to G.K. Chesterton:
a man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend.
Taking a trip up the California coast, one can gather what the early twentieth century’s “prince of paradox” was getting at. Sure, you can sit in a library and collect four books which might tell you something about life. Its origins, its rhythms, its meanings, its possibilities. But then, . . .
. . . well—now, there’s a thing . . .
four books would you choose? I mean, if you were trying to read the four that would teach you about the point and purpose and girdth and gristle of it all?
Would you go with the boxed set of The Origin of the Species, Frankenstein, Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire, and The Catcher in the Rye? Or would you string together: A Tale of Two Cities, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Macbeth, and Das Capital? Of course, you might could go with: The Odyssey, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and Les Miserables . . . or perhaps do as all sane mortals might: simply throw your hands up in intellectual resignation, stack everything silently back on the shelf, and concede that four books really wouldn’t get you as far as carrying one of those tomes out the door, climbing into your car, sitting with a friend conversing, as you both take in the grand view passing along your shoulder.
(As for the battle: that I’ve already been through, and let me tell you: two things are certainly true about that: (1) what Nietzche said about “that which doesn’t kill you . . . (etcetera and so forth)” is certainly so; and (2) the little mouthed truism “better to have warred and won than never to have warred at all,” makes most sense—but only if “better to have warred if losing was the only alternative” was, in fact, the only alternative).
But we were talking philosophy when this all began. So there let’s return (and really begin!)
The method that Chesterton would be nudging us to contemplate—on the road to a philosophy—is what we are currently pursuing. And if that method isn’t precisely clear, it suddenly becomes so when we look past our shoulders—my seatmates and I—through the willowy fingers of pine, to the rocky terrain of the Pacific coast, whose outcroppings and violent expressions are periodically swallowed by the undulating—sometimes raging surf—below.
No matter where one stops, there is (on this Northward California coastal trip, at least) a painting-in-wait, a meditation on nature and being, a visual haiku of self in space:
where promontories peek (or . . . is that peak?) from their misty shroud:
. . . and marine upcroppings take the shape of lounging bears or submarines:
where feats of human imagination, creation, precision design and contrivance, sit cowed, mute, dwarfed by the natural constructions encasing them:
where virgin beaches lie still, expectant, tantalizingly undisturbed:
This is the field, the experience, the endeavor, from which the philosophy will emerge. So, put the book down, Monsieur Peripatetique. Stop the car, relegate remembrance of battles past to the dust bin for the disposable; scan the horizon in every direction. From a cliff above: discern the patterns of history; note how, below, the gurgling spume erases all trace of acts suddenly past.
Then abruptly. Turn now from the brisk salty air; the road beckons. Harken, on the wind. Can you hear it?: there are further landscapes to step into, new friends to engage, the next battles to wage .
Later in the evening, after a hearty meal in Big Sur, there is time for review. Time to play with Photoshop, goof with some visual games.
Then, in bed, our bodies still listing from the endless succession of hairpins—hour after hour, tossing our bodies hard left, then right—it is time to think back to Chesterton’s admonition. To ponder what philosophy can be gleaned from a book, a landscape, a friend, a battle. An idea that might emerged, where four books would not have sufficed.
What remains are the spaces in between the shapes . . .
. . . the sounds between the composition’s notes . . .
. . . the joys beyond the pulse of everything in front of you.
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