The eternal conversation

Louise, I went as fast as I could. You were drawing your final, heavy breaths, while I was drawing ancient, arcane syllogisms. This was our last chance to speak together in this life. We understood that all too well, and so I hurried, disentangled myself from logic and leapt across the ocean. Yet, in the end, we missed each other. I could not shake loose the tethers quickly enough, and your last smoky breath slipped away.

Humanity often ponders over her mortality, and she thinks she knows “all too well” the deep link between the material and the temporal. She doesn’t, not really. Aristotle and Einstein, though, they were individuals who did truly understand: time is matter. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains them best, writing, “This state of motion is said to be essential–that is, natural; it cannot be separated from beings because it is their essential requirement, as it is the essential requirement of fire to burn.”

We can think of this two ways, first, that existence and motion are co-extensive, quite quantumly and ontologically so. We sat beside each other at the Pesach table, Louise, as we frequently did, and yet all along we were also speeding past one another. Descartes saw the truth but could not bear it, that proximity is real at only one level of understanding and experience; at another, we are constituted of nomadic existents, and so we journey in unseen lands.

Or, second, as Bahá’u’lláh has written, that fate is of two varieties, one irrevocable, the other revocable by divine decree, that is, in response to prayer and entreaty. In this life, we are marked by a tantalizing and terrifying obscurity, for we can never know with certainty which of these might constitute any given event. The author who pens our story loves us dearly and adheres as best He can to the contours of our innermost narratives, yet He still has a plot to maintain, as well.

These two interpretations intersect for me in you, Louise, my aunt, the grandmother I never had. And in that junction, this summation by Bahá’u’lláh solemnly speaks true: “Thou hast committed into mine hands a trust from Thee, and hast now according to the good-pleasure of Thy Will called it back to Thyself. It is not for me, who am a handmaid of Thine, to say, whence is this to me or wherefore hath it happened, inasmuch as Thou art glorified in all Thine acts, and art to be obeyed in Thy decree.”

Thus, with your passing, I understand a little more, and I also understand a little less. Hegel would simply smile and nod, I’m sure. Yet, through the shifting mists of insight and confusion, things unsaid, things that only you and I, as the professional philosophers of the Schwartz clan, could share and love, begin to echo through.

As you knew, I’ve been studying Averroes, that man who proved to be so much of a turning point for the Western monotheisms. His elaborations of Aristotle might have changed the face of Islam, so argues Ernst Renan; instead, they went on to change the face of Judaism and Christianity, indeed, perhaps so far as to ignite the intellectual fuels that burned in the Renaissance, if not even Modernity itself. How so?

“Averroes was most famous, or rather infamous, for his understanding of [the mind], worked out in terms ultimately derived from Aristotle, the Possible and the Active Intellects… that all humanity shares a single intellect,” writes Paul Cantor, “[W]hen we think a rational truth, such as 2 + 2 = 4, we all think alike and in that sense participate in the same intellect [and] insofar as we participate in the unity of the Possible Intellect, we also participate in its eternity.”

Averroes, following his teacher Avempace, described this participation as “conjunction” (ittisâl), as though philotic twine tied us all together in a vast res cogito, a transcendent subjectivity beating rhythmically and heart-like, with each pulse uploading the impressions of the res extensa and downloading clear and distinct ideas: this a keyboard upon which I’m typing, that is Louise about whom I’m reflecting, and so on. What we normally conceive of the “I” is simply the percolation between this body and that single immense mind.

Again and again, I’ve wondered: why am I attracted to this man and his strange idea? At first, I thought it was because he stood at a crossroads moment in our species’ history, or because he seemingly had the courage to declare that reason and revelation could be harmonized. There was also the allure of his multiculturalism — one of the only two non-Westerners in Raphael’s School of Athens, a virtuous infidel in Dante’s Limbo:

Then when a little more I raised my brow, I spied the master of the sapient throng, seated amid the philosophic train. Him all admire, all pay him reverence due. There Socrates and Plato both I mark`d. Nearest to him in rank, Democritus, who sets the world at chance; Diogenes, with Heraclitus, and Empedocles, and Anaxagoras, and Thales sage, Zeno, and Dioscorides well read in nature`s secret lore. Orpheus I mark`d, and Linus, Tully and moral Seneca, Euclid and Ptolemy, Hippocrates, Galenus, Avicen, and him who made that commentary vast, Averroes.

I read Dante’s poem and I’ve beheld Raphael’s masterpiece, but still I felt there was more. Perhaps it was the resemblance between us? He, like you and I, Louise, came from a family of distinguished lawyers, only to be seduced by the siren song of philosophy; and he, like you and I, was attracted to the wisdom of the old and exotic, in his case the tradition of the Greeks, in your case the Indians and Chinese, in my case the Muslims.

Yet, the way I’ve kept orbiting back to him hints at something else, something fundamental, like the way the North Pole invisibly but irresistibly beckons the compass needle, for the latter is actually crafted magnetism.

As my studies proceeded, I learned that the deepest interaction with, assimilation of, and revision made to his doctrines took place among the Jews. The most well-known of his students among them was Maimonides, whose theory of psychology tantalizes with a mystical rendition of ittisâl. Less directly was Spinoza, whose pantheism winks its Averroism, that is, monopsyche inflated to the status of the structure of the cosmos itself.

Louise, you would immediately see why I focus upon these two, for they served as the foundation for Faith Through Reason, your parents’, my grandparents’ take on the question that bedevilled Averroes. Therein, they argue that there is really only one vast single soul of which we are individual expressions. They even describe it as resembling a cat’s ball of string: upon death, the string simply rolls back up. Immortality, then, is of two sorts: the cat’s endless game with the ball, always ravelling and unravelling, and the memory of each momentary, fragile ittisâl of string and body among those other ittisâls here in the phenomenal world.

Flying across the Atlantic, realization came to me, as Maimonides might say, as a light dawning: this was none other than Averroes’ doctrine! “Averroes’s conception of the Possible Intellect allowed him to speak of the immortality of the human soul without implying the survival of the individual soul after death,” Cantor explains. “In talking of the unity of the Possible Intellect, he was basically coming up with a notion of species immortality for the human race.”

“In Averroes’s understanding,” Cantor continues, “as individual human beings we die, but our thoughts may live on. This outcome is especially true for someone who writes his thoughts down in books, thus making it possible for later generations to react to them. Indeed, in the realm of the written word, philosophers can in effect converse with each other over the centuries, as Averroes did with Aristotle when he wrote his commentaries on the Greek philosopher’s works.”

“Dante employs the idea of the Possible Intellect precisely in Averroes’ sense, suggesting that philosophers form a community of thought over the centuries, that the gradual perfection of human thought grows out of a conversation among philosophers over time,” he concludes. “The eternal conversation of the philosophers in Dante’s Limbo is a metaphor for what Averroes meant by the immortality of human thought,” and so, too, with Raphael’s painting.

Monopsychism is in our blood, Louise! And like a little boy discovering a beautiful coin in the mud, I wanted to run to you to share my discovery — in truth, not a discovery, but a remembering. But then your string rolled back up into the cat’s ball.

I stand here now, the coin in my hand, the mists swirling around me. We both journey in unseen lands, but now you more fully. A fate was decreed and it proved irrevocable. And yet, why am I not sadder at your departure?

The unsaid things speak now even more clearly. As a Bahá’í, I of course do not agree with Averroes wholly. Here I resemble his Christian disciple, Thomas Aquinas, for as a tenet of my religion, I have faith that more than echoes remain. You are somewhere and nowhere, Louise, just as all our loved ones are, just as I shall be one day.

But as a philosopher, I now know that we are never truly gone in another way. An echo of each of us does remain, joining a dark discussion, generations’ old, whispering in voices of impossibility. Soundwaves are motion, yes, but those of this eternal discourse are of a motion beyond motion. And so, our clan’s conversation around the Pesach table, year after year, generation after generation, has and shall always continue, beyond years and beyond generations. I believe this with all my heart, because I can hear it in my veins.

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7 thoughts on “The eternal conversation

  1. This is lovely, Chris.

    From the funeral liturgy: “Therefore be comforted; for you have been shown more than you can understand.”

  2. In FTR, the folks described God as the universal soul consisting of a malleable copper ball, from which a strand enters into us at birth and is reabsorbed into the ball at death. The copper strand is our connection with immortality, with a second form of immortality consisting of our continued remembrance by those we we touch. You and Louise certainly were, as you say, the professional philosphers of the Schwartz clan,and I know how much she enjoyed her discussions/arguments with you, and how much you each cared for one another. Your memories of her will be part of her immortality. I am very much moved by your comments about the Pesach table, and by your entire reflection on Louise. How like you it is to take her as a theme and build a deeply thought through and eloquent reflection. By the way, while the folks certainly knew of and referred to Maimonides and Spinoza, I am pretty certain they never heard of Averroes. But then, neither did I ’till you introduced me to him recently. I am so glad you were able to fly the Atlantic to be with us at the funeral and at the gravesite. Much Love, Dad

    • Thank you so much, Dad! Ever since Astrid, I’ve become convinced that philosophy is best when it’s rooted in story.

      Incidentally, I remembered the analogy in FTR being a cat and ball of string. Perhaps that was something I picked up from family discussions. I’ll check my copy…

  3. Great post, but one thing about Dante’s Limbo. Averroes wasn’t the only non-Westerner (whatever that means in this context) he mentions there. Avicen was also a muslim, an Iranian! Which means that Dante includes 2 muslim philosophers among the greats, but not one christian. No Aquinas, no Augustine, etc.

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