Table for Four (Elements) Please!

Two recent events on the radar screens of philosophers stirred long looks in the rearview mirror.

In what some in the profession jokingly called the New York Times Book Review’s “Special Issue” on philosophy (January 23), three pieces—a review by Montaigne biographer Sarah Bakewell of James Miller’s Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); a review by Susan Neiman of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (Free Press); and a piece by New York Times Magazine editor James Ryerson on the philosophical novel—all seemed to suggest a desire by philosophy lovers everywhere for a more old-fashioned sort of activity than supposedly practiced in academic philosophy departments today.

You know, “How should we live?” rather than “How do we know?” Or “What is the meaning of life?” rather than “What is the meaning of meaning?”

Later in January, a panel at the New School entitled “Does Philosophy Still Matter?”, organized around Miller’s Examined Lives and including such participants as the author, Cornel West, and Simon Critchley, also produced heartfelt appeals for the good old stuff.

Without taking sides on the larger issues, we’d like to note here that Penn State University philosopher David Macauley beat these folks at their own game last year.

They’re carrying signs screaming, “Back to Socrates!”

He’s declaring, more or less, “Back to Empedocles!”—before going forward again.

Elemental Philosophy: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water as Environmental Ideas (SUNY Press, 2010, paperback due this July) is, make no mistake, a very serious book of philosophy. It’s also wonderfully comprehensive, impressively resourceful and superbly imaginative—yet down-to-earth—in bringing the loftiest philosophical thoughts about earth, air, fire, and water together with the excrement, breezes, stoves, and water fountains we live with. Macauley observes regretfully at the beginning: “‘Once considered profoundly animate, social and even divine—whether in the guise of localized bodies, purposeful forces, or powerful deities—the elements now strike us as largely impersonal, lifeless, and without agency.”

Why try to reverse that attitude? Macauley, who teaches at Penn State’s Brandywine campus, explains in his preface that getting caught in elemental terrible weather while out for a run—he was studying the Presocratics at the time—started him thinking about this project.

Environmental philosophers, he realized, “have surprisingly neglected the perennial elements and elemental realms. We have tended, for example, to focus on the status of the snake molting on an outcropping of rock rather than on the underlying earth; we have embraced the bird in the sky or the fish in the sea but, until recently, ignored the air or water itself; and we have stressed the cultural objects forged by fire but not the flame per se.”

Macauley thus decided to take on not just the exploration of his fantastic four, but also stone, wood, ice, snow, clouds, heat, cold, light, shadow, night, space, and other basics you may feel you understand, though perhaps not in a  sophisticated scientific way.

Recognizing that we’re “increasingly sheltered from rather than brought into closer contact with the elements,” which have “retreated from the forefront of daily thought and experience,” Macauley delivers an enormously rich overview of his subject, drawing on predictable thinkers such as Empedocles and Aristotle, but also listening to contemporary writers on nature like Edward Abbey, Gary Snyder, and Gretel Ehrlich, and literary greats such as D.H. Lawrence. Philosophically, Macauley notes such divergent opinions as Alfred North Whitehead’s that ancient Greek theories of the elements showed “the undying vitality of Greek philosophy in its search for the ultimate,” and Hegel’s harrumph that ancient thinking on the elements constituted “puerile fantasy.”

Once you catch on to the rhythm of Macauley’s ambitious, almost symphonic project, you can pick and choose among its pleasures. One option is simply enjoying the many logical puzzles his textured material presents: try Ivan Illich’s notion that “H20 and water are opposites,” or Plato’s that the four elements are geometric shapes. Another is to stick with the author’s own ultimate concern for pondering how our understanding of the elements, and our efforts to “domesticate” them over the centuries,  impacts our present way of life and approach to environmental threats. All told, the story he brings together corroborates a thought he quotes from the writer Jan DeBlieu: “Somehow, out in the elements, the wisdom of science falls a bit short.”

Like many authors, Macauley found his next book in his last one. He writes midway through that one good way to begin thinking about “our ethical relationship with the elemental world is through regular, reflective, and critical human ambulation,” because it’s “one of the most basic, everyday activities in which we engage.”

You guessed it. That’s the next book—the whole megillah on walking.

Why, it’s elementary, my dear reader!—Carlin Romano, Critic-at-Large

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