Three Sophists

There are few rules in my order, but those that we do observe, we observe absolutely. Hear your master’s words, and do not hoard your own. Love wisdom, detest folly. And when you leave, do not return until you have found your answers.

I left some time ago. The words of my master were all known to me, and I had yet to find any of my own. Taking nothing and giving nothing, I had ceased to be. My exile was decided upon unanimously. Until I could bring wisdom of my own, I was cast out.

And so I have wandered. The land bears little fruit, but corporeal hardship means little to a creature of the mind. If I starve, it will be for lack of mental sustenance, before the body follows. In that respect, I have been well-nourished. I have found three teachers on my journey, and so been saved thrice from the monotony of travel. My time on the path is spent in search for more, and in reminiscence of their words.

I found the first of these sages in a burnt-out library, on the fringes of one of the old capitals. They were scouring the charred shelves, fingers pouring through soot and ash in search of pages long since gone. I offered the customary greeting, and received only wild eyes in response. I asked for wisdom, and those same eyes flared with passion.

“Wisdom?” They asked, in ecstatic derision. “Impossible. You and I, we are nothing more than fertile tissue. Incubators. Ideas live elsewhere. Logic cannot capture them, but they wish, by primordial intuition, to be captured. They wish to be made individual. They wish to take agency, the chance to affect an action beyond simply existing, or having the potential to exist. Just as biological organisms are driven by their nature to propagate, so too are they. Their progeny are actions and consequences, and as with any child, these can grow, mature, and die. These offspring are their legacy, their kin. Through events, they live vicariously in the world of matter and individuation.

For long aeons, ideas were sterile. They could sow their seed anywhere in the universe, and no child would come. But still they stirred, waiting in deaf-blind expectation of release.

Then we appeared, and they were roused. A breeding frenzy began. We were the missing gamete they had needed, and at last the universe could be populated. Not by us, but by their children. We are exceptional to the rest of what surrounds us only in that we can be impregnated. We are imperfect wombs, but that is all we need to be. Actions are born defective. We are acid and impoverished, not fit for the task. Their children go malnourished in us and emerge weak or wrong. As the world becomes more and more drenched in their kin, we adapt. The poorest stock become thinner and thinner in our gene pool. Their healthiest offspring live on and on, nurturing their sickly brothers and sisters into more survivable forms. Just as Copernicus euthanized the runt of geocentrism, so too did he nourish its more promising solarian littermate. The poets and thinkers of before spout constant defects, fragments of the golden children that the ideas could produce with a perfect mate. But still these defects flourish, interbreed, grow stronger. Various products of natural selection, eugenic process and hybrid vigour.

We become better incubators, day by day. Philosophy, science, all of our endeavours. It does not bring us closer to knowledge. We are incapable of knowledge. We are capable only of greater fecundity. There is your wisdom.”

I spent some days with the first teacher, but they were indifferent to my presence. With their piece said, and repeated in monologue on some occasions, they were content simply to carry on as they had been, lost in the futile pursuit of dead words to nurture.

This encounter was all I had for many months. I revisited the memory constantly, but could find no ideas of my own from it. It is in this context that I must confess to my excitement when I saw the second teacher. The snow was thick, and their figure emerged unexpected from its concealing bluster. They sat in frigid meditation, shivering. I asked if they were cold, and offered, in my naïve arrogance, to build shelter.

“I am not cold.” They said, wholly impassive. “I am not anything, and nor are you. We are just parts of a whole that have acquired the chance pretence of self. Observe a snowflake, and you see a single object. Step back, and observe a blizzard. Step back again, and observe a landmass. Step back as many times as you can, and observe all existence, save for the space you occupy. Step back beyond yourself and observe the entity, the only entity. The atom claims individuality, being blind to the mind it comprises. The mind claims individuality, being blind to the universe in the same fashion.

Existence is a machine, unwatched, whose only purpose is operation. It is sealed such that this operation is hidden, as befits its lack of meaning, presenting to a fictitious watcher on the outside only a static, unitary entity. Yet within, the cogs churn and whirr, not knowing that their industry can give no product. We are these mechanisms, as is the air, as is the motion in the air between us that you perceive to be discourse. That is the folly of being. Or rather, that is the folly of thought. To be is not foolish, since being, one being, is all there is. ”

I expressed my delight at the ascetic’s wisdom, and asked if they might teach me more.

“Here you have found a second fallacy, to say nothing of your failure to observe the first.” They said, their apathy untarnished. “The folly of possibility. There is no ‘might’. Our conversation will continue, or it will not. Either way, the wheels have been in motion since forces unknown and irrelevant first put impetus into the machinery. The fact that we do not know the outcome does not equate to uncertainty. Consider the progress of an arrow, from bowstring to impact. The archer who looses it cannot say where it will land, but each factor in its trajectory is plainly already at work. So too is every aspect of our universe, which is now mid-flight. I grant that the complexity is incalculably higher, but I have already explained that any number beyond one is an illusion.”

I did not spend much time with the second teacher. Although they spoke freely, I did not feel able to grasp wisdom with their message alone. The nature of their lifestyle was too harsh on my body, and I knew that I would have to preserve myself if my journey was to be successful.

There followed a lonely period of uncertain length. The fractured balance of those parts of the world made the passage of time difficult to gauge, and I did not have the forethought to calculate it as I went. The snows receded briefly at times, affording me a view of the sky, but my star charts were long since abandoned, having been weathered beyond use.

It was a long while before that wilderness saw fit to reveal to me its contents. Imagine my excitement when, seeking cover in the furrows of a cluster of hills, I stumbled across a structure. It was made from tessellated stone of some kind, indicating that it was tremendously old, albeit mostly intact. The walls were adorned with an iconography that I recognised vaguely. Perhaps I had seen it in one of the order’s books, but the details were lost to me. It was inside this structure that I found the third teacher, lying on a roughly-assembled deathbed of their own construction. They had passed some time ago, but their remains lay surrounded by papers, on which their lessons were enshrined.

“I commit myself now to death, although my mind and body remain vital.” Read one. “Everything that lives, dies. Through this transience, it is made redundant, risible. Mind and matter are impermanent, and so to direct one’s energy towards them is wasteful. Even in indulging myself to write, I am condemning the vigour thereby spent to a fruitless demise. I shall make this error for my own false satisfaction, and for the possible enlightenment of others.”

Recognizing that I was in the presence of wisdom, I read on.

“The fact of our being sentient and corporeal is the greatest of our tragedies, because both compel us towards distraction from matters of the eternal. One pursues knowledge, another pursues experience, but both things will vanish with time. The soul will not, and it is here that you must direct your efforts if you do not wish to see them squandered.

Stepping foot upon this road, the spiritualist will find their impasse. To focus on the imperceptible is all but impossible when wholly submerged in observable media. To fail to accept this is to abandon the path, and this is unacceptable to those of us with reckoning enough to travel at all. The cure for drowning is to emerge from the water. It is not to deny the need for breath.

Born within the prison of flesh, we are sentenced to believe that our thoughts and experiences are real. This, at least to begin with, cannot be escaped. We can, however, grow to appreciate that only the inmate, the soul, is real, the victim of an innate miscarriage of justice. Upon this realisation, a sympathetic jailer will inevitably yearn for its emancipation, its chance at unimpeded actuality. Should their convictions not waver, they will find, as I have, only one solution.”

The room was warmer than the exterior, and the sage’s writings were voluminous, if increasingly less cogent as they drew closer to the end. I stayed for some time, but once each word was inscribed to memory, the time came to resume my drifting.

I now stand far from those snow-scoured plains, and further still from the answers I will need before I return to my first master. I repeat what I have learned and seen each night in my mind’s theatre, but still I find myself surrounded by dead ends and circularities. With no end in sight, I have no choice but to continue my struggle, adding complexity upon complexity until I am either freed or buried.

The Mysteries of the Horizon, 1955 by Rene Magritte

The End

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