Thursday, November 7, 2013

Commonplace book: Why ideas?


κριβς μν τοτο κ τοιούτων μεθόδων, οαις νν ν τος λόγοις χρώμεθα, ο μήποτε λάβωμεν—λλη γρ μακροτέρα κα πλείων δς π τοτο γουσα—σως μέντοι τν γε προειρημένων τε κα προεσκεμμένων ξίως. 
... we will never get a precise answer using our present methods of argument—although there is another longer and fuller road that does lead to such an answer. But perhaps we can get an answer that's up to the standard of previous statements and inquiries.
—Socrates in Plato, Republic 435d

... we shall enjoy ourselves hereafter by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated. ... The simple imaginative Mind may have its rewards in the repetition of its own silent Working coming continually on the spirit with a fine suddenness.
—From Keats's letter to Benjamin Bailey, November 22, 1817

There is no intellectual exercise that is not ultimately pointless. A philosophical doctrine is, at first, a plausible description of the universe; the years go by, and it is a mere chapter—if not a paragraph or proper noun—in the history of philosophy. In literature, that "falling by the wayside," that loss of "relevance," is even better known. The Quixote, Menard remarked, was first and foremost a pleasant book; it is now an occasion for patriotic toasts, grammatical arrogance, obscene de luxe editions. Fame is a form—perhaps the worst form—of incomprehension.
—Jorge Luis Borges, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"

If Jefferson, as smart and as well-read as he was, had illusions about the future, there is not much hope for the rest of us avoiding illusions about our future. But that is precisely the point of studying history. Before we become arrogant and condescending toward these people in the past, we should realize that we too live with illusions, only we don't know what they are. Perhaps every generation lives with illusions, different ones for each generation. And that is how history moves from one generation to another, exploding the previous generation's illusions and conjuring up its own.
—Gordon Wood, The Idea of America, introduction (22)

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