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Archive for October, 2007

Comentario a Eduardo Escobar Octubre 29 de 2007 – CONTRAVÍA “La suerte está echada”

Si bien encuentro en sus columnas una fuente que permite siempre recordar la posibilidad critica de la poesía y la literatura, en muchas ocasiones debo confesarle que me muevo en contravía con las últimas palabras de esta columna, prefiero “no ser justo y gritar un poco”. Sin duda su pesimista presentación de lo político en el ámbito colombiano invita a que quienes nos dedicamos a la filosofía política reconsideremos los fundamentos de lo político. En eso estamos de acuerdo. Situaciones de caos generan caóticas aproximaciones, pero la pregunta prudente es considerar si dichas aproximaciones agilizan el desorden generalizado. Y así nos movemos entre el desorden y el orden gracias a sus agudas pero sesgadas aproximaciones. Desafortunadamente hasta ahí llega el camino que caminamos conjuntamente; sobretodo porque el camino que pareciera usted recorrer hace de ciertos caminos con una poderosa tradición histórica una simple ilusión. Caminando el camino de lo político se nos revela que tal vez era mejor ni arrancar. Pero bien, ¿cuáles son los puntos centrales en los que difiero frente a su argumento y su poder poético-retórico (en el buen sentido del término)?

1. En su columna encuentro una confusión fundamental que hace que las palabras pierdan mucha de su fortaleza critica. Hay una confusión elemental entre la visión moderna de lo político —–tal y como aparece desde Hobbes (y de cierta manera en Maquiavelo)—— y la visión de lo político tal y como aparece formulada en la filosofía política clásica, en particular en la obra de Aristóteles, pero también en Platón, Jenofonte y Cicerón. Es por ello que usted puede indicar con demasiada facilidad que “Es extraño que este antiguo arte de lobos, la política, goce de tanta reputación de cosa buena.”

No podemos entrar aquí en detalles, pero la política como un “arte de lobos” aparece así formulada en el Leviatán de Hobbes. Ese mismo proceder, que gira alrededor de un supuesto realismo político, puede verse también en la obra de Maquiavelo El Príncipe (aun cuando la posición de sus Discursos es mucho más compleja.) Y es de anotar que el gran contrincante intelectual tanto de Hobbes como de Maquiavelo es precisamente Aristóteles. Al igual que usted, los modernos Hobbes y Maquiavelo ven en la idea de la política “como cosa buena”, algo irreal y utópico.

Ahora bien, es claro que Aristóteles y el pensamiento político clásico ven en lo político no simplemente la posibilidad de un bien realizable, sino además la condición misma de nuestra naturaleza como humanos que por naturaleza somos seres políticos. Y dicha postura Aristotélica está alejada tanto de un realismo político como el de Hobbes que permite lo que sea, como de un utopismo radical que retóricamente incita a lo que sea. La recuperación de lo político desde los clásicos permite considerar la profunda necesidad de lo político para los humanos, y a la vez, permite visualizar las peligrosas limitaciones que dicho ámbito posee. En la filosofía política aristotélica encontramos el camino para una recuperación de la real honorabilidad de lo político y, a la vez, una cierta trascendencia de lo político por medio de la filosofía política. Confundir esta compleja opción con el simplista modelo de Hobbes le permite a usted “ganar” la partida con mayor facilidad.

2. Y añadido a este primer punto se encuentra en su columna una actitud ambivalente que resulta perniciosa tanto para la educación reflexiva de una ciudadanía política fuerte que cree en lo público, como para la generación de una acción moderada interesada en la sanación de la realidad política misma que a lo largo de la historia ha caído muy por debajo de sus reales posibilidades. Es así como, por un lado la columna parece invitar a los ciudadanos comunes y corrientes —–como usted y como yo—— a seguir luchando por la democracia y por el honor: “Y con filosofía o sin filosofía, a los ciudadanos comunes como usted y como yo solo nos resta seguir en la brega de sobrevivirnos creyendo, para no perder por completo el honor, que no todo es desvergüenza. Hay aquí un impulso hacia lo virtuoso en lo político, hacia el bien político fundacional, a saber, el honor. Es por ello que los representantes políticos se denominan en todas las democracias como honorables (así, como usted nos recuerda una y otra vez, muchos no alcancen la altura de dicha designación).

Pero por otro lado, el balance de la columna parece dejar a los ciudadanos con la sensación de que esta honorable frase realmente sobra. Usted resume este otro polo pesimista con su fortaleza poética de esta manera:

“Y en los muros de la esquina bajo el aguacero se deshacen sus retratos.”

Pero lo que dichas palabras desconocen es precisamente una comprensión más profunda, más sentida, y más amiga de lo político. ¿Por qué? En primer lugar, porque el deseo fundamental que motiva al ser humano político, el deseo de su inmortalización a través del reconocimiento público, es sin más, hecho trizas. El aguacero deshace toda cara política; deshace todo recuerdo de los grandes líderes. No quedan retratos. Además el aguacero parece deshacer toda acción publica ya que ninguna acción pública dejaría huella.

Pero por el contrario, algunos ciudadanos sí recordamos ciertos retratos con absoluta admiración; recordamos que sí hay Churchills y sí hay Abraham Lincolns, y sí hay Bolívares, y sí hay Lara Bonillas. (Y recordamos también que Bolívar “el hombre político”, y Bolívar “el personaje de Gabo” no son, afortunadamente, el mismo). E igualmente las reglas mismas de lo político en nuestras democracias hacen evidente que al menos una parte de la ciudadanía sí cree que hay retratos dignos de reseñar y honrar. Tal vez nuestro país ha olvidado esto, pero otros países tienen ceremonias con este único objetivo. En este sentido, desde el lenguaje y la realidad de lo político, es claro que en medio de aguaceros surgen –—y pueden y deben surgir—- quienes tienen la cara para enfrentar la tempestad y así ser recordados. Tal vez desde otros lenguajes todo eso parezca mera ilusión.

En segundo lugar, se da en su columna una crítica, ligada a la anterior, que hace de la opción de la sabiduría practica —-virtud aristotélica fundamental que caracteriza a los grandes líderes políticos—- algo nuevamente ilusorio. Dedicar la vida a la consecución de dicha virtud parece ser una gran pérdida de tiempo:

“Todos tienen una propuesta para salvar el presente, y sienten sus derechos para aliviar los desórdenes del futuro financiados con los huevos de oro de la gallina suculenta del presupuesto.”

La única sabiduría que nos queda es la de la astucia guiada por el dinero, motivada por el poder, limitada al ahora y gozada en lo privado. Sus palabras reducen así la posibilidad de considerar que, dada una educación política adecuada, en efecto sí hay y puede haber algunos entre nosotros que en efecto estén mejor capacitados para tomar la decisiones políticas requeridas.

Pero lo que es más pernicioso aún; estos dos puntos que he mencionado, en su conjunto parecen hacer imposible el crear las condiciones educativas de motivación tanto para generar líderes políticos honorables guiados por cierto amor crítico al bien público, como para generar una ciudadanía que crea seriamente en las posibilidades de lo político. En cierta medida, podría uno decir que, si así son las cosas, no resulta extraño encontrar que Platón en la República busca exiliar —–bajo una interpretación—– a los poetas de la discusión de lo político!

(Un tercer punto a considerar es su alusión a la idea de la muerte de Dios en nuestra época, sobretodo gracias a la impresionante obra de Nietzsche: “Pero el hombre moderno está condenado a confiar en los políticos, a resignarse a lo imperfecto, porque Dios ha muerto.” Al respecto cabe preguntarse si Nietzsche ofrece una respuesta coherente a la noción clásica de una religión cívica a la base de una república saludable. Pero debido a la extensión ya vergonzosa de esta respuesta, tendrá que dejarse esta pregunta para otra ocasión.)

Espero que estos puntos hayan sido expuestos de tal manera que inviten a cierta moderación política en su concepción que parece ser radicalmente apolítica.

 

 

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La columna de Eduardo Escobar Octubre 29 de 2007 – CONTRAVÍA “La suerte está echada”, dice así:

“A los ciudadanos como usted y yo nos queda seguir en la brega de sobrevivir. (more…)

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Almost everyone knows Socrates did not write anything. But knowing this fact makes it even more difficult to be surprised by it, and much less to seek, however partially, to understand its implications for us. For what does not surprise, rarely forces us to open ourselves to its unexpected appearance. This is primarily so in our culture where writing has become the hallmark of recognition. To be illiterate —— a form of quantifiable statistics of crucial importance in measuring the educational state of a nation———– is defined as being unable to read and write. Take for instance the shame of those who do not learn to write, it is so overwhelming that they prefer to live secluded lives. Take as well the assumed superiority of our culture to that of oral traditions (Rousseau saw this early on in his precious Essay on the Origin of Language).

In a similar vein, it is particularly in academia —–specially but not exclusively in the Humanities—- that the requirement to publish is not only the hallmark of assured creativity and proof of continued reflection, but also the avenue for institutional success. To rise academically one must publish. Nothing seems more obvious and normal to us than this. I remember once a professor speaking mockingly of some PhD candidates who had not published anything yet. Although I was rather young, I still remember even then being a bit surprised by the whole thing.

This is why I think Socrates’ decision not to write might be considered, at the very least, as a necessary corrective and counter-balancing presence. Does this mean we can do without publishing? Of course not, it just simply means that we might look at what Socrates did. That is all, or mostly all. And this is why for those of us who see in Socrates the model of the philosophic life, it makes sense to ask: Why would Socrates not write anything? Would he not be seriously considered as an odd figure among us because of this, exactly as he was seen in his very own time? (See Alcibiades’ description in the Symposium.) Socrates seems to remain a stinging ray! And moreover, and please bear with me, did Plato and Xenophon not commit a terrible injustice to Socrates in writing about him? But then again, who would have Socrates written about if HE was the one worth recording? For surely the whole thing was not simply because Socrates did not have the time to write; he himself confesses he only dedicated himself to oral dialectics, so he could have found the time! He chose not to do so, in contradistinction to our contemporaries who choose to do so. And of course, if Plato and Xenophon did commit an injustice, we are thankful for it, and understand that some such injustices must be pardoned for our very own sake and well-being. To this idea we shall return.

Why then would Socrates proceed in this strange way? The single most important aspect of Socrates’ refusal to write is his constant reminder that philosophy is primarily a way of life. A way of life can be written about, but the person living it, well, she just lives it! Socrates at one point in Xenophon’s writing, simply dances alone. The only exception would be if such a person decided to write his own autobiography; and Socrates, contrary to, for instance Churchill, chose not to. Our modern way of philosophizing, in contrast, sees writing as precisely THE way of life for the humanist; writing is of the essence. Of course, we teach courses, but once again the courses are primarily on written material themselves. In this respect, it is clear that what Plato and Xenophon and Aristophanes saw in the Socratic experience was fundamentally an ergon (that is, an activity; deeds or action) AND a logos (a discursive account carried out in dialogue with other diverse interlocutors). (more…)

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Susan Sontag, the metaphors of illness and the militaristic understanding of the ill. (On Illness 17)

It is not easy to find readings regarding illness by patients who are humanists and ill themselves. This is easy to explain, in a sense. First, one must have been involved in the humanities for many years. Second, one must have fallen seriously ill. Third, and very importantly, during that period of illness one must have had enough physical and mental energy to be able to reflect and to write about the process of illness itself. The latter is no easy task; just try writing when you have some kind of physical pain. Or think of this common occurrence which, now that I have been seriously ill, makes me smile. When one reads the biography of many famous and important people such biographies usually end something like this,

“and then, quite unfortunately, such and such illness came suddenly into his life and suddenly he lost all his genius and his creative powers, and then the most brilliant mind became totally lost ..…, and then died in the year such and such ……” .

Why do I smile? Because such a narrative is highly incomplete, untrue, oversimplified and dangerous. Why is this so? Primarily because this kind of narrative seems to me to be a bit like the story of the monster that lives under our beds. But more importantly, it continues separating creativity and the most fundamental elements of our unique human condition, including our suffering, our physical fragility and our mortality.

Don’t you think it is odd to actually believe that somehow one produces less and becomes less creative and thoughtful PRECISELY when one comes to learn first-hand of the vulnerabilities which lie at the core of our humanity! For surely the greatest writers did not write about such topics by having simply READ about them (though reading about them will prepare us like no other exercise once they become present in our lives, or in the lives of those around us.) On the contrary, it is —-in part—- by living such moments that one’s creativity is energized and one’s potential reflection actualized more deeply. “But I have never gotten ill”, you might respond. “Good for you!” I say, “just do not forget that if this is so, those around you who fall ill will need even more of your help and practical wisdom when dealing with situations of crisis.” Hearing such narratives makes me think that in our world we are in constant fear of illness for we can only see it as the beginning of the end, rather than the end of a shallow beginning. Suffering makes no sense to us, and the sufferers much less so.

However that may be, the fortunate appearance of these three conditions is the main reasons why Susan Sontag’s Illness as metaphor is such a unique and precious book. It is a book for those seeking to make somewhat articulate that which is mostly held as unspeakable; particularly so in our age which sees in death and in the immobility of illness “the other” against which we must continually fight and guard ourselves from.

In this post, I will merely point to some of the reasons why this confluence is so unique. At least four elements stand out: 1. Sontag allows for insight into what it is for an ill person to write DURING illness itself; 2. Sontag points out the dangers underlying the kinds of metaphors we use when dealing with illness, metaphors which are unavoidable given our nature as self-interpreting animals (on this, see Charles Taylor who has also had great impact in the area of nursing); 3. She crucially reveals the most damaging of these metaphors, namely, the military metaphor as it is applied to illness in such a way that ironically who I am and my body become sworn enemies leading, in turn, to a dangerous dualistic tendency which emphasizes a separation from myself, demeaning me silently; and finally, 4. she points to one crucial interest in the connection created by political thinkers between the illness of the body and the illness of the body politic. I will briefly point to each of these dimensions. (more…)

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Choosing a doctor and knowing yourself.

In selecting a doctor, or better yet, in selecting doctors, it is inevitable that one will end up looking at oneself and at who one is. In my case, I have selected doctors both from traditional and alternative traditions; more importantly I came to be with doctors who suffered the transformation —Socratic in essence—- which leads from traditional medicine to alternative views, not simply of medicine, but of the human condition itself. The reason for my going these roads, though it is no easy road as both types of doctors have great suspicion of each other’s paradigm, was in part my deep belief in the importance of bilingualism with which I have been involved as ESL teacher for more than a decade and as citizen of Canada, one of the few official bilingual countries in the world.

In this respect, patients from the humanities are in special need of doctors who have been deeply involved with the humanities for only then can a mutual and healthy dialogue towards understanding, and maybe even recovery, can ensue. The work of doctor Pellegrino is here of great importance; see, for instance, his aptly titled “Educating the Humanist Physician; an Ancient Ideal Reconsidered. However, patients from the humanities must beware that the likelihood of such coincidence is not high and when illness is thrust upon us, there is little time and energy to make such connections.

One of the doctors I visited later in my illness told me very seriously I had to choose between one or the other of these treatments, and that it was my responsibility whatever I did. To this I answered calmly: “If this is so, if indeed one has to choose, then I have already made my decision a long time ago.” ( I had made my decision the very day I decided to dedicate my life to the humanities, 20 years earlier, when I was absolutely healthy.)

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In search of a meaning for physical pain.

Permanent and serious illness is almost inseparable from constant physical pain, be it through the illness itself, or through the therapy which one follows to regain one’s health. But physical pain is not the only type of pain with which the ill person must deal. Emotional and spiritual pain are summoned by the physical pain itself as a new condition is brought upon the person and specially those surrounding the ill. Later on, in another post, I will look at the ontological assault on the self which serious and chronic illness represents in terms of the loss of personal identity which the ill person must now face.

The ill suddenly see the narrative of their lives —which they have constructed through the years, even if they are few—- enter into an unknown and frightening domain in which the very possibility of a conscious narrative is in constant question. Pain arrests the normal possibility of narrative through action and reflection. Pain reduces all movement, pain removes all words (if you are healthy, just try to imagine one of those days in which you have a stomachache or headache). This is why it is of the utmost importance that the ill find all the means possible to understand their pain and give it a sense of meaning even when others do not see this as a possibility (of course, THEY do not have the pain!) This implies in part following, what is so common today, learning to “manage” one’s pain (for instance, the power of breathing). But this is an economic metaphor that reduces the spiritual potential hidden within each and every suffering person to a mere issue of control. Health is not a business, no matter how much we are forced to think so.

During the many years of recovery from my illness, I have had my share of very severe pain. Without going into the details (though actually I find it absolutely rare to find a person wishing to speak reflectively about pain; it seems to pain them more than the pain itself!) , I simply want to share a story which I always remember when pain comes around to visit me.

There are many such stories, but one needs to surround oneself by them. I myself simply recall the story of a young man from my dear Bogotá who on the very day of his graduation from school ——and having received a meritorious award for being one of the best high school students in the country—- was “accidentally” shot in the back. He was almost paralyzed completely. What he told one reporter I have never been able to forget. Paraphrasing, the young man said something like this when asked about his pain:

“Whenever I have pain I actually feel better for it tells me that I still have feeling in my limbs. It tells me my body is still trying to recover. It brings me hope. This motivates me everyday to try to move just a bit more each day.”

By moving a bit, he meant moving his toes.

When in pain, the ill —and those who surround them—- must search for such stories in order to bring a sense of purpose and narrative (see Charles Taylor, SotS) to their suffering, their shame, their vulnerability and their present weakness. Perhaps the greatest purpose can be the very recovery of the new narrative in sickness in which the patient finds himself. By giving his illness the sense of a story, the question of pain will still be present, yet secondary. (To this effect, I will post a sample diary sheet for the ill in the next post to record privately the daily happenings of their new situation. To this effect, I will also post a basic bibliography on illness which may open avenues for those who are ill.)

In contrast, I once heard a doctor say that he was a good doctor because he helped his patients as best he could. However, he added responding to a person who spoke as this post does, that he had to be honest and could see no purpose whatsoever in the pain and suffering of his patients. One wonders how such a bright and successful man could not see how contradictory his words were.

 

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