Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. Everything has been figured out, except how to live. One always dies too soon or too late. And yet, life is there, finished. The line is drawn, and it must all be added up. You are nothing other than your life. There is only one day left, always starting over. It is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk. We do not know what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are, that is the fact. When you live alone you no longer know what it is to tell a story: the plausible disappears at the same time as the friends. You let events flow by too.Suddenly you see people appear who speak and then go away; you plunge into stories of which you can't make head or tail. You'd make a terrible witness. It is true that people who live in society have learned how to see themselves in mirrors as they appear to their friends. Luckily, I only have a few...

Dr Shaw is a lecturer in Further Education at Edge Hill University, Ormskirk. She also offers philosophy courses at the School of Continuing Education, Lifelong learning, at the University of Liverpool. In 2015, she has completed her Doctorate in philosophy with a focus on existentialism, the equilibrium doctrine and narrative. She has worked as a teacher of English and Comparative literature and Philosophy at The American University in Cairo, Egypt where she also obtained her BA (Hons). Dr Shaw has an MA in Philosophy and Literature from the University of East Anglia where she also taught on a number of humanities subjects. Whilst working in North Wales in Further education, she gained a PGCE aimed at teaching in FE and HE sectors. Dr Shaw moved to Liverpool in 2010 where she now resides.

Interests: Existentialism, Narrative, Comparative Literature, Feminist Thought, Public Speaking, Arab Existentialism, Philosophy of Education, Art, Music, Film and Theatre, Greek Mythology, Existential counsellor and psychotherapist.


Thursday, 4 November 2010

Remaining at the Door

“To learn and to think is to remain at the door. To assume the posture of the lotus is to come home and sit in peace” (Steiner 160)

The idea of reducing oneself to nothingness- remaining at the door- and admitting how little one knows (epistemology), in order to be ready for the process of absorbing knowledge is a controversial matter in moral ethical philosophy. By looking at oneself- knowing thyself- one will be able, according to Steiner author of Lessons of the Masters states, to be a “true disciple who learns to follow himself” (117). Once that is accomplished, the need for a guide emerges to lead one’s quest and journey to mount the hill of knowledge, depart the cave of darkness and get out to the light. Hence, being in company with the guide and creating a bond between the guide and the seeker or the master and the disciple is a must for the success of the educational process. A masterpiece in medieval literature, Dante’s Inferno: Divine Comedy presents such a bond and highlights the disciple's fear during his quest. It is a must for any seeker of knowledge to undergo “humiliation and rejection before the Master’s acceptance” (160). In both works, Lessons of the Master and Dante's Divine Comedy, the disciples were reduced to nothingness as they were consigned to stages of experience in a journey that would prepare them for an ultimate goal, as they must obtain a state of “perfect emptiness towards the extinction of the ego in an infinite zero” (161). In the Divine Comedy, Dante narrates his journey that starts by being lost in the wilderness, his acknowledgment and confessions of being wrong and lost is in itself the first step that Steiner stresses on in his book. The masterpiece of the Medieval Ages reveals Dante’s experience and realization of being at one point in his life “strayed from the True Way into the Dark Woods of Error” striving for the first light he could find, namely the sun that stood for the divine illumination.

“Midway in my life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in the dark wood. How I came to it, I cannot say, so drugged and loose with sleep has I become when I first wondered there from the True Way. (4)

Starting from this point, Dante was eligible, as Steiner would probably claim, to start his quest which started by meeting his guide, Virgil. Steiner has already predicted the descent of a guide “from his mountain cave to instruct the three (platonic) orders of mankind: common folk, the warrior caste, and the philosophers-poet” (115). Thus, Virgil as a poet and, from Dante’s view, a philosopher, was assigned to be Dante’s master, guide, and instructor, this was apparent in the dialogue between both when they first met, where Dante says: “For you are my true master and first author, the sole maker from whom I drew the breath of that sweet style whose measures have brought me honor” (7). While Virgil replies: “You follow me and I will be your guide and lead you forth through an eternal place” (8). Therefore, both roles, guide and seeker relies on one another to be complete as there is no master without a slave and vice versa. In the process of teaching, the disciple becomes hesitant and reluctant about his ability to pursue his quest, such humbleness is necessary because it helps the disciple to reach the zero state of being, creates a realm of understanding, love, and appreciation from the disciple to his master, or a seeker and his guide. Moreover, Steiner ends his book stressing the importance of such relation when he says:
“Relationship between master and disciple as sketched: the need to transmit knowledge and skills, and a desire to acquire them, are constants of human condition. Mastery and apprenticeship, instruction and its acquisition must continue as long as societies exist” (179) And as Dante shows how reluctant he was as a seeker, he narrates his fear of not being able to continue his quest, as he is a mere human being with limited abilities especially when it comes to unveiling the truth, thus, Dante seems to doubt having faith in humans’ abilities to see the light which is a core idea in theology in general. Dante claims: “ I, one man alone, prepared myself to face the double war of the journey and the pity, which memory shall here set down, nor hesitate, nor err. Look at me and look through me—can I be worthy? May I presume to this high quest and not fear my own brashness? You are wise and will grasp what my poor words can but suggest”. (12) A proof of Dante’s doubt is his fainting throughout his journey whenever he is faced with any truth or reality, which is an act of showing the limited ability of human beings in general and the incapability of being faced with the truth. Besides, wondering where does this weakness in human beings come from? A typical ancient philosophical answer will say: from the world! And yet the world becomes the source of all evil that hinders one’s quest by creating obstacles in one’s way to the divine. In Dante’s journey the obstacles were presented by animals who carried different qualities, such as the lion who stood for violence, the fox for cunningness, she-wolf for lust and desire, and leopard for deception and fraud. Therefore, as Dante tried transcending a slope that gets him out of the Woods of Error to the light, the sun, these obstacles stood in his way, and thus he was able to overcome most of them, overcoming all was nearly impossible as mere human beings are always tempted by the world to indulge in error, sin and evilness. The idea of indulgence and awakening is vital in Dante’s work as referred to by Steiner who said that: “To awaken in another human being powers, dreams beyond one’s own; to induce in others a love for that which one loves; to make of one’s inward present their future.” (185)

The whole teaching process becomes an awakening of the being to realize being lost. Steiner’s claims that one’s quest must be a never ending one, a lesson that is not over as one should seek more and more. Steiner asks his readers at the end of his book “is there no time for another lesson?” The only joy and happiness brought to human beings is through a never ending journey where seeking something is essential, such as the divine as an ultimate goal for instance. By the end of Dante’s journey, descending to hell and seeing the tortured souls, then ascending to heaven as the final state leaving his guide, Virgil, behind, as readers, we get an understanding of the transcendence of the character and the completion of his quest that brought him situated him back on the right track. Steiner even points out that the guide’s departure, Virgil being left behind, is a normal ending to any master and disciple relation, as the disciple has reached a higher state that calls for one’s solitude and responsibility as well. Steiner claims: “Now I bid you to lose me and find yourselves: and only when all of you have denied me, shall I return to you” (117). Thus, the master’s role ends and now the disciple must continue his path alone. Dante finally says: “My guide and I crossed over and began to mount that little known and lightness road to ascend into the shinning world again”.

Dante, Inferno: The Divine Comedy, 1321.
Steiner, George. Lessons of the Masters. Harvard Press. London, 2003.

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