Péguy in the Afternoon

As the light fades in the epilogue of this afternoon, I approach one of the shelves of my library. There sleep, crowded, a legion of French authors. Those of us who live possessed by a bibliophile passion usually ask ourselves: are we the ones who seek out books or are they the ones who come to meet us? Are we surrounded by fossils that receive the vital pneuma when we take them in our hands? Or is that the books let themselves be annihilated by the dust of the years, as the skin of their pages silently oxidizes? Have we ever found ourselves in this enigmatic and peculiar way of living, surrounded by a chorus of absent voices that emanate from the walls of our house?

Among the names, I read one: Charles Péguy. The title sounds irrefutably Pascalian: Pensamientos (Thoughts). The book gathers a series of brief meditations, in the form of aphorisms that do not reach the level of greguerías because they lack that principality of images and metaphors, so typical of Ramón; but they have plenty of depth, rebelliousness and seriousness.

Péguy’s work compiles a bunch of quotations taken from the original version of his Cahiers de la Quinzaine, notes of the French writer between 1900 and 1914. In fact, in an entry dated April 1914, we read the following: “There are as few painters who look as there are philosophers who think.” And that sentence is enough to light the flame of a new article.

Art and philosophy have an urgent task that cannot be postponed: to learn to look. Art, because it has lost its way in the subjectivism that turns into inconsequence; philosophy, because it has accepted its descent from queen to vassal and has lost its dignity: without a metaphysical horizon, in this invention of “post-truth” it is reduced to an ancilla of the ideologies of the moment.

It is necessary that the painter does not forget to look, or better yet, to see properly in what he looks at. Atahualpa Yupanqui wrote it in a milonga of my land: “For the one who looks without seeing, the land is just land, the pampa, the stream or the willow grove say nothing to him.” The painter must have the vocation of a demiurge; that is to say, to capture that which he has first contemplated. In an article published by the newspaper El País on September 4, 1987, Paco Umbral praised the work of the painter Antonio López in these terms:

Antonio looks for the same thing in Madrid that he looked for in his landscapes of Tomelloso: a last or first glimmer; that way of behaving that reality has, a sun wound in the glass chest of a viewpoint. Life, in short, that his pupil distributes in jewels.

It is almost an Augustinian itinerary, from the outside in and from the inside up: co-creators with the Word; art as a vocation of fidelity to the real. Antonio López’s painting is a prayer arising from things, from the flesh of a quince, from a cracked wall, from an ignored refrigerator, from the bathroom mirror or from La Gran Vía in Madrid when the morning dawns. Antonio knows how to look.

And what is the task of the philosopher, you may ask? To answer this question, it is first necessary to make a distinction of the circles: it is one thing to be a professor of philosophy, another to be a teacher of philosophy, and a last, more arduous and higher vocation is to be a philosopher.

A professor of philosophy is one who carries in his head the ideas of others. It is a necessary vocation to make the essentials of this subject accessible to others. A good professor of philosophy tries to expose each thinker by putting on his shoes; the critical task comes later. Here is the first circle.

A teacher in philosophy is one who fulfills the principle established by Thomas Aquinas: “Contemplata allis trader;” that is to say, to transmit what is contemplated. As one senses, it is a higher degree than the mere expositor of the ideas of others. The teacher in philosophy not only expounds, shows, reveals, carries to the end the heart of a philosophical doctrine, but also opens windows towards autonomous thought. If philosophizing is “to go on the way”—as Karl Jaspers said—while the philosophy teacher tells us about the forest, the teacher points out its paths, showing us the clearings as revelations.

And on the highest rung, the philosopher. Philosophizing is a vocation marked by a yearning for the ultimate possible reality. Another Frenchman, Etienne Gilson, saw this very clearly when, in Vademecum of the Beginner Realist, he taught that, while the philosopher speaks of things, the professor of philosophy speaks of philosophy. Philosopher is he who can coin in a peculiar synthesis a thought of his own. “Own” here means “personal,” which has nothing to do with extravagance, with intellectual pose or with the eroticism of mere novelty. True philosophy requires two spheres: one intra nos, that which we macerate in intimate solitude, an inhabited solitude that will never be a cloistered monologue. Its raison d’être is given by listening to the real. At the beginning of our life, were we not listeners before we spoke? The other sphere is given inter nos, “between us,” for the philosopher can never renounce community. Every philosopher, as a being-in-the-world, is traversed by a language, by a spiritual imprint, by an inalienable cultural ethos.

Péguy takes the floor again to complete our intuition:

A great philosopher is a man who has discovered, who has made explicit some new aspect, some—new—reality of eternal reality; he is a man who, with his own voice, enters in his turn into the eternal concert.

Péguy has things of Plotinus and Augustine, of Thomas and Pascal, of Kierkegaard and Bergson; I believe that they converse at night, wall to wall, in this house full of books.

Diego Chiaramoni is Professor of Philosophy at the Instituto A.M. Sáenz and holds a degree in Philosophy from the UNSTA, in addition to having studied Psychology at the USAL.