The ancient Greek word φιλοσοφία, “philosophy,” derives from the word φιλόσοφος, “philosopher,” which is itself a compound of two other words, φίλος and σοφία. The word φίλος is a noun that denotes a friend, one who is fond of, one who loves, someone or something. The word σοφία, also a noun, translates as “wisdom.” The philosopher, then, is one who loves wisdom; and philosophy, as everyone knows, is the love of wisdom. Yet it is not so easy to elaborate on this simple definition. What exactly is wisdom? And what is the proper mode of the philosopher’s love? A philosopher grounds his self-conception on his answers to these questions. What is he as a philosopher? What does she do, how does she live, as a lover of wisdom? It seems to me that we have lost sight of the relevance of these questions, and that our conception of philosophy has suffered as a result. Therefore I have written a book-length study of Plato, Melville, and Nietzsche, framed as a philosophical commentary on Moby-Dick, which is in a way a meditation on wisdom and the love of wisdom, and thereby also an attempt to revise our contemporary conception of the philosopher.
Although I have just called my book a philosophical commentary, Moby-Dick as Philosophy: Plato – Melville – Nietzsche is not quite a straightforward commentary on Melville’s masterpiece. Better to think of it as a series of reflections on the novel’s philosophical content, with something like an argument surfacing and sounding here and there throughout the length of the work. I say something like an argument because I employ the word in part as is standard in recent usage, according to which an argument is a sequence of statements or premises set out to support or justify a conclusion, but also in the somewhat more antiquated sense according to which an argument is the primary subject matter or theme of a discussion or story. As to the structure or form of my argument, it emerges gradually, a section here and there, in an order more suited to a digressive essay than to the concise formulation of a proof. Although I do intend to ground reasoned and reasonable assertions on actual facts, and thereby to elaborate an original new reading of Moby-Dick, my primary objective is to fashion a fresh image of the philosopher—or, really, to return to an image that I think more nearly resembles the original—by superimposing portraits of Plato, Melville, and Nietzsche—the thinkers themselves, their ideas and their lives—to produce a composite image through the overlaying and interblending of figures. And this brings me to the content of my argument, which has to do with the nature of philosophy and its relation to wisdom, and the relation of creative artistry to both. I develop this theme by situating these matters in the context of the history of philosophy conceived as the rise and fall of a certain influential variety of Platonism, which rise and fall we may characterize in Nietzschean terms as the life and death of God; and I explore all this with reference to the different reactions, as exemplified particularly by Melville and Nietzsche, to the nihilism that looms on the horizon of these intellectual and spiritual revolutions.
Since among all else that it is, my book is a work about philosophy, I might have called it “Philosophy as Moby-Dick.” The idea behind such a title would be to stress that one may practice philosophy legitimately through creative thinking and writing, that philosophy need not take the form of a meticulously logical treatise striving above all for clarity. The philosopher may explore and experiment with substance, style, and form, precisely as Melville did when he conceived and composed Moby-Dick. Plato and Nietzsche are exemplary practitioners of this manner of creative philosophizing, and their positions in the philosophical canon are secure; and although I do not intend to make a case for including Melville in this canon, I do hope to persuade at least some readers that the broadly similar approach to philosophical activity as a practice infused with artistry, as exemplified in the lives and works of Plato, Melville, and Nietzsche, is not only serious but perhaps even superior to the constricted modes of professionalized thinking and writing that predominate today. This depends in part on taking philosophy seriously as the love of wisdom, rather than the love of truth, and so dissociating wisdom from truth to at least some extent, particularly from truth understood in accordance with the presuppositions of academic scholarship, modern logic, and a narrowly materialist science. But I shall have more to say about these matters in the body of the text. For now I add that I have written this book as an act of creative philosophizing, and I have tried to reflect the unconventional style and form of Moby-Dick in the book’s tone and structure. To read the book aright, then, one should approach it as a work informed by scholarship but as on the whole an experimental endeavor, in short, as a work of philosophy allied with art.
Mark Anderson is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. In addition to the work covered here, he is the author of Pure: Modernity, Philosophy, and the One; The Thinker-Artist (Sophia and Philosophia); and Plato and Nietzsche: Their Philosophical Art.