Philosophy as Martial Art in the Shadow of Apocalypse

De Umbris Idearum: the shadows of ideas. Giordano Bruno used this as the title of one of his treatises on the art of memory. As thematic inspiration for this weekly column, the notion of shadows is taken for its most expansive potential. Everything we encounter in the environment is in some way a shadow of an idea, whether in nature, where our interpretation of what we encounter is predicated on a complex assemblage of conceptual precedents, or in the social world of artifice, where everything from our cell phones to the buildings we live in are in some ways the physical shadows of someone’s idea.

Meditation and contemplative practice, in many traditions, are tools for overcoming some of the inherent problems that come from dealing in shadows. Think of yourself on a darkened street. You see a tall figure moving towards you from an alleyway. Unsure of whether facing friend or foe, the mind immediately moves to react in the way best suited for survival. If friend, the shadow will be no threat, but if enemy, then without the proper attention, we could face injury or death. It makes sense, then, to react immediately in defense rather than taking a chance on becoming a victim. But this is nevertheless a very taxing way to go about things. What if one could more clearly judge potential threats or potential benefactors? In the material realm, this is a key to the practice of martial arts. In the mental and spiritual realm, this is the key to the practice of philosophy.

War is father of all, king of all. Some it makes gods, some it makes men, some it makes slaves, some free.


One must never forget that Socrates was a soldier, that Paracelsus slept with his sword at hand, and that it is a recent innovation, predicated on the specialization required for technological efficiency, which has relegated philosophic practice to a purely mental realm. In reality, the mental and spiritual aspects of philosophy are merely the crown which is won after an arduous struggle to engage the fact of our material existence. This is very important to understand, especially in times of crisis and change such as those we are facing now. There is no better time to explore the potential of philosophy as a martial art than in the shadow of the apocalypse. We must be ready for the unveiling, and ready to address what is unveiled.

Look around and you can see the obvious danger of erring on either side of the issue. The failure of our current culture to deal adequately with the responsibilities of mass communication, technological ubiquity, and unfiltered connectivity is directly related to relying on uncoordinated specialization to handle issues that affect the whole. This applies as well to our personal lives, where separating the holistic nature of our organism into specialized components (public/private, mental/physical, secular/spiritual) creates a gross distortion of what we could be if we existed as one unified being.

Adopting this outlook, one can move easily between experiences and coordinate the wealth of opportunities that arise from interacting on all levels of reality. The inspiration for today’s column, for instance, was spurred by a conversation that I had last night with the noted parapsychologist George Hansen, whose specialty, as the title of his well-known book implies, is the trickster and the paranormal. Specifically, the inspiration came from our discussing the notorious Men in Black mythos.

Along the road there came a stranger in a land where strangers were rare and suspect. He walked up to the door of a crumbling farmhouse and hammered. After a long moment a light blinked on somewhere in the house and a young woman appeared, drawing a cheap mail-order bathrobe tightly about her. She opened the door a crack and her sleep-swollen face winced with fear as she stared at the apparition on her doorstep. He was over six feet tall and dressed entirely in black. He wore a black suit, black tie, black hat, and black overcoat, with impractical black dress shoes covered with mud. His face, barely visible in the darkness, sported a neatly trimmed mustache and goatee. The flashes of lightning behind him added an eerie effect.

— John Keel, The Mothman Prophecies

How do Men in Black correlate with the shadow of ideas? What better symbol of how fluid our view of reality is than these stories of sinister strangers encountered on the eve, or in the aftermath, of anomalous events. The above selection from Keel’s most famous book plays on this ambiguity. It is from the opening chapter, titled “Beezlebub Comes to West Virginia,” and the odd figure that appears at the night-shrouded door is John Keel himself. When it comes to anomalous phenomena, this notion of shadows is a potent source of power for the event. Whatever the material reality of our experience, we are faced with an amorphous potential that bears no clear relation to fact or fiction. Within the liminal realm of anomaly we are faced with an unnerving mirror that reflects our own assumptions, misgivings, and fears.  The Men in Black mythos moves easily through classical religion (one thinks of stories of gods assuming mortal form to travel amongst the people, such as Odin, Zeus, Dionysus, and Aphrodite,) Medieval faerie lore, witch lore, secret societies, stories of the Devil, and ET’s, and into fears of government conspiracy. It is a rare nexus point in which so many anomalous aspects of experience can be codified in the simple image of the mysterious stranger.

As George and I discussed this phenomenon, I realized that even something like the story of the ghost at the bus stop, which I related in a previous column discussing the work of medievalist Claude Lecouteux,  could in some ways fall into the mythopoetic web of the MIB phenomena. In fact, in Claude Lecouteux’s The Secret History of Poltergeists there is an account, which I quoted in that previous column, of my own family having a 17th-century encounter with a mysterious figure appearing at the door.

“There is no better time to explore the potential of philosophy as a martial art than in the shadow of the apocalypse. We must be ready for the unveiling, and ready to address what is unveiled.”

What George pointed out to me in our conversation is that it is important to keep an open mind and not allow an easy dismissal to cloud potential inspiration, which can come from some very odd angles. This is philosophy with a sword, encompassing all areas of experience, and being able to parse out what is valuable from even the most obscure shadows that creep into our lives.

Inspiration, like the stranger in the alley, can be easily mistaken for an enemy. We must be careful to wield our sword with skill, and not kill those things lurking in the shadows of ideas which, if properly addressed, can enlighten us to the depths of reality that often go unnoticed.

About David Metcalfe

In addition to writing De Umbris Idearum, David Metcalfe is the Books Editor for THE REVEALER, the online journal for NYU's Center for Religion and Media. He's also an independent researcher, cultural historian, and artist. He regularly contributes articles and reviews to Modern, Evolutionary Landscapes, Reality Sandwich, and Alarm Magazine.

Posted on September 11, 2012, in De Umbris Idearum and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Just wanted to say that I like this.

    Also sleeping with my sword,


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