Thoughts on an Almost-Epiphany
Richard Geldard, Ph.D.
At this, the beginning of another quarter of learning and study in the wisdom traditions, I would like to offer this comment on the state of our inquiries, whether it be in philosophy, psychology or religion. As often happens in my case, I come upon some language that sets off a train of thought, and in this case it was a recent book review. In it the reviewer makes reference to Buddenbrooks, the fictional account by Thomas Mann of the decline of a German family. The following paragraph struck a chord:
Thomas Mann, of course, became the master of describing the almost-epiphany….In Buddenbrooks, he famously depicts the soberly industrious, aging Senator Thomas Buddenbrook, who has recently read Schopenhauer, awakening one night with the blissful realization that individual consciousness is a mistake and death will release us back to unity with the blind, unconscious will that is the endlessly creative essence of all that exists.
Mann’s depiction of the “blissful realization” of his protagonist interested me for two reasons. The first is the reference to an “almost-epiphany,” making me wonder about the difference between ‘almost’ and simply, ‘an epiphany.’ It appears that Mann is hedging here, not willing to grant his character a genuine insight. Then later, he writes that the great universal will sought by all spiritual aspiration is “both blind and unconscious,” leaving us with a unfulfilled unity at best.
Mann’s choice, perhaps, reflects his own personal sense of a greater consciousness very different from our own private awareness. We might say that this conviction is the result of a young man’s uncertainty, Mann having been only twenty-five when he wrote the novel.
What came to me in reading the paragraph from the book was the sense that we, too, may find ourselves in a similar position. We seem to have ‘almost’ insights and perhaps sense a blind, unconscious reality beyond our limited perceptions. But the wisdom tradition that we study is deeper and more illuminating than Mann’s choice of language. It seeks to penetrate the “blind and unconscious” terrain of our seeking. And if that is so, it is our task to reflect deeply and to engage the material we study with the same vigor and intensity which gave it life long ago.
When, for example, I return as I do this quarter to the ancient fragments of Heraclitus, written down twenty-five hundred years ago, I see him saying to his students, “Do not act and speak as if asleep,” and then offering this encouragement to the seeker: “You would not find out the limits of the soul, even by traveling along every path, so deep a logos does it have.” And we learn from his work that the logos, or ground of being, we seek is far from blind or unconscious and through grace, attentive introspection and study we can have more than an ‘almost-epiphany’ and find ourselves enveloped in an all-seeing and conscious unity.
Richard Geldard, Ph.D.
PhD, Dramatic Literature and Classics, Stanford University
Full time Professor at UPR, Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, Yeshiva University Doctoral Faculty, Pacifica Graduate Institute Author of ten books on Early Greek philosophy and the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson [www.rgbooks.com]