Another Kind of Bodyguard (a note on thinking today)
There are professional bodyguards aplenty. Especially in Vegas and Monte Carlo. There are bawdy-guards too. The rights enshrined in democracies protecting our foibles and fetishes. And there are spirit-guards, even in this day and age. The Pope and the Dalai-Lama come to mind. But the body comes and goes and fantasies surrounding it and its capabilities go with it. The spirit has had a rough ride over the past four centuries; on that score, we don’t really even know what it is we’re guarding anymore.
But there is another kind of guardianship that is more perennial, that of the mind. No less fragile or maligned than its sibling human elements, it is yet more important. The youngest, the most daring, the most human of all, the mind is what truly sets us apart from all other forms of life, so far as we know. There are very few mind-guards, especially in my generation. I’m one of them. One of six. We hail from around the globe. We’re a working team that doesn’t work together. Each of us has his contributions: De Botton has the widest readership and the best networks, Montefiori the best job and institutional career, Harris the most book sales, Chalmers is the best communicator, Marder is off to the best start and perhaps thus has the most potential, and myself, who has written the most. It hasn’t been very long. Gen-X is but an afterthought already. But enough time has passed that we know now that no one else is going to come along and join us. The next generation’s thinkers are nascent but still hidden. We do not know who they are, but their problems will be different than ours. Different, but also perennial, also that is, in the most fundamental manner, the same. The same questions that humanity has always asked of itself and of the cosmos.
To ask those kinds of questions in a systematic way, informed by the history of consciousness, is to be a mind-guard. De Botton, the Swiss-Jewish gent in the history of ideas and popular sociology, Montefiori, the Italian humanist, Chalmers the fiery Aussie epistemologist, Harris the atheist critic of American culture, The Russian-Jewish Marder, the last embodiment of the Frankfurt School, and myself the Canadian phenomenologist and hermeneut. If we were a hockey team, the six of us on the ice at all times, we’d all be point men. Shot-blockers. Back-checkers. Playmakers. We’d be Bob Gainey with goalie pads. Under the radar. There only when you need us.
But who needs a mind-guard? State, Church, University, suburb and countryside alike would sleep more easily if we didn’t exist. Business has no time for us. Science left us behind in the eighteenth-century. Culture is now something that everyone has, thanks to anthropology, its nothing special. But speaking on behalf of the ‘team’, our tiny knot of thinkers and writers, and speaking as one, consciousness – reflective, reasoned, impassioned, and discontent – is the only thing that stands between our species and its imminent demise. Every human being is responsible for our collective future. The social role of the philosopher is merely a guide, a resource, and a role-model. Society doesn’t like us. Perhaps we’re not only a team, but also a gang. The most dangerous persons in the world. Public enemies number one.
Change is difficult. Even the thinker is sometimes fooled into complacency, the world of ideas alone becoming both our mantra and our refuge. Who has the time and energy to question everything? Why not let well enough alone? But it is a life’s work. It’s undertaken on behalf of everyone else. We have a few cousins, in the artist and the fiction writer, but these much more spontaneously radical beings are too easily commodified, bought and sold, and they tend to lack the historical consciousness of even their own discourses. In the history of thought as well as in its dynamite only the thinker is so versed.
And what do we do with that experience? We score little. We defend what appears indefensible to most. We are unaccepting of the going rate. We think humanity can do better. But more than that, we think the species should and must do better. It is neither a question of technique nor technicality. It is the replacement of morals with ethics, knowledge with thought. It is the confrontation with tradition. It is the overcoming of custom and law alike. We are libertines in the original sense; free-thinkers. We’ve been identified in popular culture as ‘modern day warriors’. But we fight the good fight against the good. The moral. The customary. The accepted truth of things is always farthest from the manner in which truth is pursued and explored. We tip our hat to the best of science, where as Sagan used to say, ‘arguments from authority are worthless’, and where ‘the only sacred truth is that there are no sacred truths’. But science alone is not enough. It too is too easily commodified. Its technical accomplishments overshadow its purpose. We do as a society ‘accept its products and reject its methods’.
No, philosophical questioning, culture critique, the examination of one’s conscience, the patient study of social formations without customary bias, these are the exiguous threads of a human consciousness that has raised itself beyond what it has been and now stands, perilously and yet precociously, longing and wondering, on the threshold of the firmament.