Philosophy Explored as 'A Beautiful Gift'

Cape Times (South Africa), August 21, 2015 | Go to article overview

Philosophy Explored as 'A Beautiful Gift'


I was briefer than usual last time. Now, continuing where I left off, may I fill out curtailed information. The spirit of my thought surfaced, however. I do write from within a "charmed environment", and philosophy is certainly a beautiful gift. I have, before now, made the point that I am pleased if this column has enthused readers to poetry, and I'll be as happy about readers as they engage with philosophy. (I have also already noted how difficult I find it to divorce the notions of philosophy and poetry.)

All this started, of course, with reflection on the death of professor Johan Degenaar. May I add only an anecdote about Johan.

Once, during the very difficult years of bad relationship between students at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and the government of the day and its police, Degenaar came over to UWC to talk with my students. I recall welcoming him in the parking lot and accompanying him to my classroom.

As he and I walked to the classroom Johan told about the two English speakers who once visited our campus in those days of police teargas and rubber bullets. One of the visitors was hit on the legs, but had the humour to say, afterward, that he was puzzled in the melee: he was out of his depth as to when he should be "zigging" and when "zagging"!

Apart from the seriousness of thought that, as philosophers and artists, we find ourselves living with, there is much humour in our way of viewing the world. (I bear in mind my wife thinking that I am at times inclined to confuse humour with cynicism, even if the latter is of the fabric of a great "lightness of being"! We love thinking on these concepts...)

I also had in mind the American writer Susan Sontag (1933-2004), whose work I have been attracted to for long. Poetry and philosophy ring seriously in her work. She is often controversial. What, for instance, could she mean when saying "that people should experience art with their emotions and senses, rather than analyse it intellectually"? What I remember most about her, is her important belief about the relationship between people and their illness: Do not fight your body! (This is something to be thought about.)

Another thinker to be mentioned is Hypatia (centuries before Sontag). Hypatia lived around 370 to 415. Why should we not traverse the centuries in our thought? As a thinker, Hypatia's life's concern was questioning: Why, What, How? And, as might be expected, there were those who disliked this - representatives of the church of the time, for instance the patriarch of Alexandria who organised a Christian mob to attack her - and, believe it or not, he was later canonised!

This kind of foolish, indeed reckless, opposition to intellect occurs often enough in history.

In any case, in this writing I offer simply a sample of philosophers and poets of worth.

The engaging Spanish thinker, Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), has already been mentioned. He was much influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). His translator, Jose Mora, points out that Ortega has not written poetry or plays, though his thinking reminds us of these art forms. May I say that our South African N P van Wyk Louw has shown greater versatility, and I believe it is necessary that Louw be recognised: his importance as playwright; as poet of stature; and as wonderful, in fact, incomparable essayist.

Really, whatever language one works in, Mora is right: "Concepts are closer to life than most people would admit". Mora's own commune with concepts is certainly not slovenly. …

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