We live on earth, hidden though it is under concrete and tarmac. We live the air our lungs breathe, however heedlessly we may be corrupting it. We live on the water, that vital fluid: the Greek poet Pindar said,”Water is the best of all things.” But we give no thought to the fact that technological sophistication aside, it is the elements, the fundamental principles of existence, that we really must have and cannot do without. We are incapable of imagining a time when one might say, “There’ll be no air tomorrow. Tomorrow, there will be no more water, no more fields, no more furrows to be sown.”
The nature that we inhabit and that makes us what we are is the only true reality. Epicurus revealed the essence of nature, the stuff of our bodies: an astonishing organization of the matter that shapes us, makes us real, and, like “the fading of leaves in the fall,” subjects us to the passage of time, and in so doing un-makes us. Human nature springs from a life force which, for Epicurus, consists in “feeling and thinking.” Life is an energy, a movement that animates the whole “being” to which we are capable of attaining. And, going deeper than what nature seems already to have marked out for us, existence leaves room for more. It embeds a destination, a taking-shape, an emergence as a personal being; a self-aware individuality that runs through each personal story, sculpted by such light as it casts on the concepts and words of its birthplace: language.
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An awareness of the structure of embodied being, and the acknowledgment that the possibility of happiness must begin here, with this awareness, was a decisive step for the highest of all freedoms, the freedom of mind. To be free is more than to experience the possibilities of the world, more than just an openness to existence-though the notion of freedom arose by contrast to the all-too-real experience of slavery. To be free was an inward change, an individual liberation.
There’s no freedom without language. Yet our lack of awareness of existing within nature often blinds us just as much to our existing within language. Each of us is so tightly wedded to the conceptual universe of words in which we live that we barely perceive that this is a space that needs to be inhabited, built, tended, thought into being. To dwell in the”House of Being” calls for a continuing exercise in learning and clear-sightedness.
But no learning and no liberation of the mind arises if the conditions are not right for freedom to waken and breathe. No idealism can survive, nor can the imagination achieve the delicate transaction by which language becomes a creative force, if it is compelled to coexist with corruption, violence, social anguish, poverty. Sociologists widely accept the view that most of the monstrosities to which human beings are prone to grow out of a narrowness of life, existential isolation, maiming of the sensibility and intellect which, like a brutal form of slavery, first arises in childhood and adolescence. Social alienation, the violent break with all things “established,” may simply be a crippled form of the need to be free, a pathological, desperate search for emancipation.
If we are not to surrender to these evils, we must realize that bondage of the mind-almost as severe as that of the body-befalls us when we neglect the words that nourish us and are the tilth plowed and sown in our soul.
Physical poverty is less deadly than the indigence of ideas. The ecological concerns that give us a far-sighted sense of our bodies as indissolubly forming part of the amazing world by which we are surrounded, with its flowing rivers and star-strewn skies, must find an echo in what Wilhelm von Humboldt called “inner life.” That “life,” which opens up the possibility of becoming human, is a linguistic life, lived out in the universe of words, and has its own suns and stars: the core concepts of friendship or truth, for example, which human beings have named because they are needed for the business of living. We must learn to make out, underneath the concealing veils of society, the constellations of sensibility and intellect that lie sleeping in the brain: if we have learned to light them, they cast a glow before us.
Learning is delicate, because that subtle atmosphere of words, ideas, feelings, and emotions is readily blasted away by gangs armed with greed, fanaticism, and calculated ignorance. Enlightened learning is opposed by an army of clichés, ingrained practices full to the brim with serviceable and self-serving”concepts” that lead only to criminality and aggression. The brittle harmony of society is also vulnerable to the fake “practical sense” of ruling elites who, heedless of the true import of their words, bandy them about in disregard of the meaning that beats inside.
That this should happen in the universe of words may be the outcome of the momentum acquired in the channels of our purportedly thinking minds by orbits that, while lacking the order and shapeliness of the planetary system, succeed in delimiting, closing off and annihilating circles of meaning: deceptive forms of conditioned reflexes that a sectarian education system has gradually injected into the soul, bringing out responses without heed to what those responses are, what they answer to.
This “dirty energy”-the debasement of language-like the pathos of radioactive waste, calls into being its own nuclear cemeteries. Burying the verbal detritus piled onto the surfaces of concepts by the slippery, muddled skating of politicians and the media is, in the last instance, more readily accomplished than for other forms of waste. We need only scrape off the patina that would otherwise mislead us. The emptying-out of meaning, the dilution of ideas in the course of an existence that ought to search for goals and ends beyond clogged, blind pragmatism, must start at school, which, beyond conveying a given canon of data, should instill the ability to view those facts with an awareness of the words by which they are expressed. The practice of freedom encourages creativity in the mirror in which the student, as a reader, learns to see herself. And books are not mere repositories in which spoken language comes to rest. A book”reads” us, too, because its words are a gaze finding itself in the as yet untarnished mirror of our first steps towards knowledge.
All this takes root in the soil of a society shaped by the whims of those who rule over us, as Alice found in Wonderland, but also by the conditioned reflexes that stultify and bewilder us in our social and educational experience. The heap of dead words that weighs upon the soul keeps us from honoring Socrates’ enjoinder to “say what you think,” or even “really think what you say;” the rot has reached a point at which we no longer know how to think. Remnants of dormant words lie idle at the bottom of our being; the worst thing about them is that they suddenly come to life in the form of incurable irrationality.
A language founded on truth, on personal and political honesty, is the gate to reason and life. It seems utopian to wish that human beings will walk free of the bondage imposed by the worst form of oligarchies rigged up by those who would corrupt our minds: and yet this is a utopia we should never give up. Democratic life will remain an unreal dream if the public, disoriented and deceived by the greed of others, resigns itself to a contemptible ideology of pragmatism, and so surrenders to the dictatorship of the unjust.
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