A defective reading of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”

The “Archaic Torso of Apollo” by Rainer Maria Rilke is a poem of great power. (Here is a link to the Stephen Mitchell translation, which I recommend you read before proceeding with the rest.) The surprising shock of the final words (You must change your life.) always seem new and true to me, no matter how many times I read it. The poem at once shifts from a detached aesthetic gaze to a hard ethical demand (i.e. subjectivity in Kierkegaard’s sense), from potency to actuality. (It is not surprising to discover that Rilke studied Kierkegaard intently in the years leading up to writing this poem.) Let’s begin by taking the title apart:


Mind extended into things

I think better on paper than I do in my head. When I read, I don’t just scan with my eyes but actively annotate with my ever ready mechanical pencil. If I am trying to develop an idea that has many moving parts, I have to write it out in list form and I only see the unifying theme when I can reduce it all to a single synoptic page. My work is very much in my mind when I am sitting at my (admittedly messy) desk, but almost completely out of mind when I am away from it. My mind spills out of my brain and becomes suffused with the things around me and by manipulating those things, I can make discoveries in thought. Here a few thoughts to chew over:

1. My mind is embodied but is located neither solely in my brain nor my body but extended through my tools and material touchstones.

2. ‘We have no power of thinking without signs’ (Peirce) but it makes little difference whether the signs are in my internal imagining or present in the form of external signs. My mind ‘spills out’ into the world.

3. My mind is indeed a whole of some kind, but not a whole in the sense of a delimited thing with size, shape or physical boundaries.

4. A mind is a “form of activity” in the Aristotelian sense. A mind is a “realization of form” in the Platonic sense.

5. The material substrate of this activity is brain+body+prosthetics.

6. I have noticed in some of my older, now deceased relatives, that their minds declined precipitously when they were moved from their homes into a sterilized, hospital-like environment, such as a nursing home. Although there are many explanations for this phenomenon, it is at least consistent with the notion that their minds weakened by age depended on the physical cues in their home environment, that their homes and the ordered stuff were invested with Proustian memory and know-how. They literally lost part of their minds in being displaced.

7. Back when I was a Naval Aviator, I noticed that much of my know-how was “stored” in the physical architecture of the airplane I would fly. If I were removed from the cockpit, procedures that were second nature to me could only be recalled with effort and then only by imagining myself in the cockpit reaching for knobs and switches. Once I was having all kinds of difficulty remembering my call-sign during my radio calls (the sign was always based on the tail-number of whatever plane I happened to be flying). I couldn’t understand the source of my difficulties until I discovered that a piece of electrical tape was partially obscuring an engraved plate that had as its last two digits the specific tail number of the plane. As soon as I removed the tape, my difficulties went away. Until then, I was totally unaware that I relied on this visual cue for knowing my call sign. I always assumed that I had always just remembered it from our initial plane assignment and/or seeing the number on the tail when I approached it. Instead, it seems that my mind outsourced this function from the brain to the environment. Again, there was no conscious strategy on my part.

8. I am reading two books dealing with the issue of technological mind extension: a cyber-punk novel called Accelerando by Charles Stross and a philosophical argument for extended mind called Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension by Andy Clark. The former, which explored the potential of neural implants, seemed slightly crazy to me until I read the argument of the latter. Here is a link to an essay co-written by Andy Clark and David Chalmers called “The Extended Mind,” the argument of which is the basis of Clark’s book.

9. See this article about a blind climber given a device that allows him to “see” with his tongue. Pretty amazing.

10. See an article about inversion goggles and how the mind fairly easily adapts to a change in data presentation as long as the new presentation is functionally equivalent. It reminds me of how easy it turned out to be for me to adjust to driving on the left-hand side of the road in Japan. My brain found that the American “right” is the equivalent is looking across the car and “left” is equivalent to looking away from the car. After a little while, the translation was effortless.

11. Michael Polanyi’s example of using a hammer or a blind man’s stick as examples of the to/from nature of embodied existence:

The way we use a hammer or a blind man uses his stick, shows in fact that in both cases we shift outwards the points at which we make contact with the things that we observe as objects outside ourselves. While we rely on a tool or probe, these are not handled as external objects. We may test the tool for its effectiveness or the probe for its suitability, e.g. in discovering the hidden details of a cavity, but the tool and the probe can never lie in the field of these operations; they remain necessarily on our side of it, forming part of ourselves, the operating persons. (Personal Knowledge, p. 59)


This is just grist for the mill. Later, I will bring this back to Plato/Aristotle and the ideas that (1) the necessary material of thought is whatever is capable of receiving the governing form, and (2) forms are forms of wholeness that govern activities, including thought.

Plato contra Popper on ‘Who should rule?’

I want to correct a basic misunderstanding of Plato’s political philosophy. Here is one version of the most common misreading:

Plato was the theorist of an aristocratic form of absolute government. As the fundamental problem of political theory, he posed the following questions: ‘Who should rule? Who is to govern the state? The many, the mob, the masses, or the few, the elect, the elite?’


Once the question ‘Who should rule?’ is accepted as fundamental, then obviously there can be only one reasonable answer: not those who do not know, but those who do know, the sages; not the mob, but the few best. That is Plato’s theory of the rule by the best, of aristocracy.


It is somewhat odd that great theorists of democracy and great adversaries of this Platonic theory – such as Rousseau – adopted Plato’s statement of the problem instead of rejecting it as inadequate, for it is quite clear that the fundamental question in political theory is not the one Plato formulated. The question is not ‘Who should rule? or ‘Who is to have power? but ‘How much power should be granted to the government?’ or perhaps more precisely, ‘How can we develop our political institutions in  such a manner that even incompetent and dishonest rulers cannot do too much harm?’ In other words, the fundamental problem of political theory is the problem of checks and balances, of institutions by which political power, its arbitrariness and its abuse can be controlled and tamed.  — Karl Popper, from In Search of a Better World (The emphases in bold are mine.)

The only thing about Plato that Popper got right is that the question “Who should rule?” is fundamental to his thought. That Popper thinks that he can elide that question is problematic and ultimately self-contradictory. For in Popper’s own statement of the fundamental political question (‘How can we develop our political institutions in  such a manner that even incompetent and dishonest rulers cannot do too much harm?’) simply leaves unstated who this “we” is. Is it the representatives of a democratic majority? Is it some enlightened cadre at the University of London or Zurich? Who is the “we” who is asking the question, who is going to actively “develop” the institutions, who is free from the “incompetence and dishonesty” of the rulers “we” would check, who see the way to “controlling and taming” the proposed government’s “arbitrariness and abuse” without itself being arbitrary and abusive? Popper has not at all asked a fundamental question capable of displacing the Platonic one. Plato’s is more fundamental, however sympathetic I am to Popper’s aim of restricting the worst totalitarian excesses. No “we” can act politically without deciding on a ruler, even if “we” decide “we” are the proper ruler.

Plato’s question is really one of asking who can justly rule and his answer is the one who is him/herself just. (Pretty obvious, isn’t it?) And justice turns out to be “minding one’s own business” — in other words, avoiding rule in situations where one has no competence to rule. Justice is a form of humility, of modesty, of lack of pretense to rule where a better ruler is present. If the baker knows/cares more about baking, then in situations of baking the baker should rule — even the President. To overreach, to rule in situations where one lacks situational competence, is unjust, unwise and demonstrates a lack of self-control. It is tyranny in embryo. (See my previous discussion of tyranny here.) For Plato, the one who is most equipped to rule is the one most aware of his/her lack of competence and most unwilling to overstep the bounds of his/her modest competence. In a situation of general incompetence, only the one who is aware of his/her incompetence will be sufficiently cautious.

What in the resume of Presidents Bush or Obama or Garfield or Hayes qualified them to assume rule over healthcare or education or Middle East politics or sugar subsidies or immigration policy or high finance or etc.? How foolish are “we” to think that democratic majorities will be modest in their aspirations to rule over every nook and cranny of their neighbors’ lives? What good are constitutional checks “we” put in place when the voters and rulers lack the requisite self-constitutions to give them heed? And are “we” willing to consider that the nation-state may be essentially corrupt in its presuppositions, that its sheer size is an impediment to both justice and decency?

It is exceedingly odd that Sir Karl Popper has made Plato the poster boy for the totalitarian temptation. Yes, Plato thought that experts should rule — but only when they are in fact experts. Plato was very quick to deny that there was anything like a “general expert, which is why his ideal ruler is the one most likely to deny such expertise in him/herself. Would that our rulers would follow suit!


The emergent longing for wholeness

I have long been interested in the emergent effect of complexity, particularly in human affairs. It seems that any coordinated relation of parts tends to summon some whole which becomes an actor in its own right independent of any particular decision. All of us adapt ourselves to wholes without realizing what we are doing. Think of how each group that stays together develops a specific character, almost a personality, and this quasi-independence of the emergent whole often seems resistant to any of the actor’s attempts to change it: a corporate culture or the ethos of family, tribe or nation. Some of these emergent effects can seem bad, whether on Wall Street or unhappy workplaces or dysfunctional athletic teams, but I wonder if the integrity that each emergent whole makes present is not at heart a good thing that only becomes perverted by resisting the full summons of the encompassing whole’s drive toward a greater integrity. Wholeness is normative and the source of all that is truly desirable. Human beings long for community/koinonia, a longing that has as its engine the encompassing whole that is transcendent to each participant but immanent within the larger body of participants.

Here are two citations from Plato that point to what I am groping to convey:

Parmenides 157c-e (Perseus project translation): “But the whole must be one composed of many and of this the parts are parts. For each of the parts must be a part, not of many, but of a whole.” “How is that?” “If anything is a part of many, and is itself one of the many, it will be a part of itself, which is impossible, and of each one of the others, if it is a part of all. For if it is not a part of some particular one, it will be a part of the rest, with the exception of that one, and thus it will not be a part of each one, and not being a part of each one, it will not be a part of any one of the many. But that which belongs to none cannot belong, whether as a part or as anything else, to all those things to none of which it belongs.” “That is clear.” “Then the part is a part, not of the many nor of all, but of a single form and a single concept which we call a whole, a perfect unity created out of all this it is of which the part is a part.”


Symposium (Jowett translation): “[H]uman nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called Eros.”

The part must relate to the whole to be what it is. The part has no life as the part it is without subsuming itself to its whole. Every part, to the extent it is a part, essentially desires to be integrated into its defining whole. This relation to the whole is ontologically prior to every other relationship. The part’s participation in the whole cannot be achieved without the co-participation of the other parts. Human beings long to be themselves and yet this longing unsettles any presumed independence. The deficiency out of which human eros springs is a lack of wholeness. (Partial) participation in the whole excites a part toward full participation. One can only fully participate by coming into relationship with other parts of the same ordering whole. One part cannot fully relate to the whole without cooperating with the other parts in achieving their relation to the whole. I cannot be what I ultimately want to be unless the other has also achieved his/her proper fulfillment. Our longing for wholeness is thus necessarily a mutuality of aspiration. I cannot enter the human whole, the koinonia of the one, without loving the others enfolded within the same whole as me. Any interest of mine that interferes with the neighbor’s own true interest must be self-deluded.

The whole must agree with all its parts; the parts must agree with each other; each part must agree with the whole. This trinity of agreements is the basis of all true integrity, community and desire.

The examining life

It is not the nature of human beings to let thing that interest us go unthought about. “What is it?” and “Why?” are not just modes of speaking and thinking: they are living ways of standing in and toward the world. In the face of our most powerful experiences, those questions may not get fully answered, but it is intolerable for them to go entirely unanswered either, and impossible for them to go unasked. For good or ill, to be greatly and noticeably affected by anything, and not to seek the cause, is no part of life as we live it. If that were not so, if we refrained from all reflection, important things could happen to us without becoming part of our experience at all. Life would pass through us without being lived by us.

                                                                 –Joe Sachs, “Introduction,” Aristotle: Poetics (Focus 2006), p. 1


On specific ignorance

Quisquis ubique habitat, Maxime, nusquam habitat.
[“He who lives everywhere, lives nowhere.”  — Martial, vii]

General ignorance is a bad thing, perhaps the worst thing. Let us never accept our ignorance placidly. Just as life is greater than death — infinitely greater — so too is knowledge greater than ignorance. We should strive for knowledge as we strive for life, for both types grow toward the same source.

But I want to argue that specific ignorance is a good thing. What do I mean by “specific ignorance”? Specific ignorance is not mere absence but absence of something definite. The form of general ignorance is “I don’t know anything,” whereas specific ignorance is “I don’t know this thing”. Such ignorance is essentially dynamic and oriented toward the reality of the specific. Perhaps the first rule of good teaching is to transform a general ignorance into a specific ignorance, so that the striving that ought to accompany ignorance can flower into actuality. Here are a few leftover thoughts to get you thinking:

1. The vehicle of specific ignorance is the questionable opinion, not the blank page.

2. Try replacing periods with question marks.

3. There is no consummation without a prior animation.

4. Real knowledge is the fruit of specific ignorance; no plant, no fruit.