Despair of Wings

Why on earth doesn’t the poor man say the Soul and have done with it?                                                                                    WILLIAM JAMES “By reality and perfection I understand the same thing.” I remember the moment fifty years ago when I read that outrageous and enviable sentence for the first time. The words infuriated me, because they seemed to defy so much of what we know about nature and history, and because they seemed to mock us for regarding the imperfections of the world, which include calamities of enormous magnitude, with the utmost seriousness. The shocking verbal simplicity of its fortune-cookie theodicy, the untroubled and undiversified syntax of its peace of mind, made it easy to imagine it being uttered in a comedy by a fool. But it was not the pronouncement of a fool, and so I confess that I felt also a certain jealousy of the philosopher whose ferocious critical energy did not rule out such a cosmically sanguine conclusion, such an unmitigated declaration of acceptance, such a thorough release from intellectual strain. Either he was wrong or I was flawed. (Or both, of course.) How could the mind think itself to such a state of contentment without compromising itself? Sentences such as this can tar reason’s already tarred reputation. The sentence appears, almost as a methodological throwaway, in the preparatory material, the introductory “definitions,” of the second part of Spinoza’s Ethics. The first part of the work, the strictly metaphysical part, laid the ground for it, so that no elaboration would be necessary. My study of Spinoza had been preceded, fortunately, by

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