St Peter’s toes

This summer I visited Rome for the first time. Like most visitors to the city I was keen to anchor my diffuse knowledge of ancient Rome by actually seeing the actual, real remains of the old city. I wanted a direct encounter that book learning could not give me. But as I wandered around the Colosseum and the imperial fora I was disappointed. Although the ruins were so stunningly numerous and rich, so generous in the detail they provided to the onlooker, I didn’t (of course!) find the real ancient Rome there. It seemed to me that it was more convincingly present in books that I had read. And indeed it seemed that “the real Rome” was doomed to be always elsewhere: when I am reading about it, I can imagine it lurking in fallen buildings, and when I finally get to see the fallen buildings, it runs coquettishly away back into the books.  Freud reports a feeling of “derealisation” on seeing the Acropolis, and although he gives his own very characteristic Freudian explanation for this, invoking his personal biography, I suspect that his feeling was very much like mine, and that the kind of disappointment I felt is not at all uncommon.

My disappointment was inevitable because my desire to encounter “the real thing” was inchoate and absurd. Apart from anything else, I was making the physical a kind of talisman for the real. I wanted a broken marble column to present the reality of a lost civilisation to me with an immediacy that a sentence from Pliny, say, can make us yearn for but cannot itself supply. That is a lot to expect from stone.

However ill-defined it might be, this quest for “the real” is pervasive. Tourists are notorious for it. At its most discreditable, it is the quest for the real, authentic culture and traditions of a region, a demand which is profitably supplied by the provision of ersatz, commercially generated resemblances.  But that particular anthropological quest is just one example of something more generic. What we are often trying to get hold of when we travel is “the real” itself. This imperative is made clear when we see tourists crowding around, say, Michelangelo’s Pieta, which can be barely glimpsed beyond its barriers and behind its bulletproof glass. I assume that excellent reproductions afford much better opportunities to explore it. But we want the real thing. The ancient Colosseum, too, can perhaps be better glimpsed in the CGI reconstructions of it that graced the film Gladiator. But we want the real thing.

How do we feel when we confront all this actuality? We are often frustrated. Looking is not enough. We want to have some satisfyingly full experience of the object in question. One of the things we want is to understand it, and looking at just a few of the synonyms for understanding gives a vivid insight into our anxious appetite for the real. To understand something is to comprehend it, and  the archaic meaning of “comprehend,” – “to take together, to unite; include; seize” – meshes nicely with modern idioms: when looking at something with understanding, we “absorb” it; we “take it in.” We want to have it within us. Tourists taking photograph after photograph seem to be anxiously seeking and failing to reassure themselves that they have absorbed into themselves and now truly possess some iconic bit of reality. Just looking thoughtfully at an object has not given them what they need, so they apprehend it in a purely mechanical way, perhaps with some hope that future looking, at the acquired image, will provide the assimilation that has thus far eluded them.

I didn’t bring a camera on holiday with me, so my own attempts to master a sense of separation from the real involved touching. Where signs did not forbid it, I put my hands on things of beauty or interest that I saw in an attempt to “grasp” them – to experience them more fully, to register my encounter with them more securely.

And that brings me to St Peter’s toes. In St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, there is a bronze statue of St Peter, at least 700 years old, possibly much older. He is shown giving a blessing and holding the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Several of his toes have been worn to flatness by pilgrims over the centuries touching (and kissing) the statue. Pilgrims were the tourists of their day and they are numerous among today’s tourists in Rome. It is interesting to consider the possibility that pilgrims and (other) tourists have a motivation in common. Both groups are seeking a satisfying encounter with “the real.” You could argue that pilgrims are lucky, because they have a relatively clear idea of what this yearned-for absolute is: it is God, conceived as (something like) a universally underlying entity, from whom all particular existences are emanations. And pilgrims have a rich and beautiful set of images and stories that help them to conceptualise an encounter with it. The loss of innocence at the Fall begins our human career as exiles from the presence of the absolute; Christ’s exclamation “Wherefore hast thou deserted me?” is its tragic culmination, and his crucifixion is the means to its transcendence by all of us. The keys held by the bronze St Peter symbolise the possibility of a successful readmission to  the presence of the absolute. When pilgrims touch St Peter’s toes they know what they want: they want him to endorse them and help them in their quest for entry.

Now, regardless of whether it is true or false, that Christian story (of a separation from God and of striving for a redemption that brings a new unity with God) seems to map onto a form of human yearning, a sense of exile and incompleteness that is in some sense prior to religion and can be experienced in a secular fashion. If the Christian story is false (and there is no God, no separation from him, and no reunification either), then pervasive belief in that story cannot be explained by reference to it’s being true, and might well instead be explained in terms of this prior human yearning and sense of exile or separation.

The most plausible explanation for this prior-to-religious sense of a fundamental separation that must be overcome is likely to be a psychological one. But there is one particular manifestation of a secular “yearning for the real” that probably has at least a degree of autonomy from psychological causes. It is our interest in philosophy. Speaking naively, the project of philosophy is to characterise the real, and in particular to give an account of reality that succeeds in overcoming the big mystery that our first forays into philosophy generate: namely, the mystery of how it is that we can have any knowledge of reality at all.

Those first, naive, forays into philosophy occur very naturally to us all, usually in childhood. How do I know if there is anything there at all, really? Am I the only mind? Do you see the same as me when you see something you call “yellow” or feel the same as I do when you feel something you call “pain”? These are intuitively compelling questions that lead us into an equally intuitive and compelling naive philosophical scepticism. As soon as we ask these questions we are cast into a kind of exile from the reality that we had previously been immersed in. Our confidence that we are apprehending reality is shaken. The task of philosophy then becomes the laborious business of rebuilding that confidence, overcoming exile, reuniting us with the real.

It does this either like St Peter by supplying keys of various elaborate sorts that allow passage between our humble consciousnesses and a transcendent reality, or (perhaps more respectably) by providing a critique of the naive questions (together with their naive answers) that prompted our scepticism in the first place. Wittgenstein offers such a critique. When he says that “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday,” he is referring to the fact that just as pilgrims and tourists, on their holy days and holidays, travel far afield to engineer an encounter with the real, philosophers (i.e. all of us, as soon as we ask those first naive questions) take language out of its home territory on a trip of a lifetime which is aimed at finding reality but in fact just problematises it in a way that generates the need for the kind of “therapeutic” philosophy that Wittgenstein practices, which largely involves taking language back home again.

Both religion and philosophy offer us ways of conceptualising and seeking to resolve a profound sense of exile or separation from reality, one that we also seek, rather blindly, to resolve in our daily life  (including, in my case at least, when we travel as tourists). Whatever psychological causes there are for this sense of exile are supplemented by the genuine intellectual concerns that give rise to philosophy. Historically, religion has served both to soothe the psychological sources of perceived exile and to address intellectual concerns about the nature of reality and the place of our consciousness within it. Over the centuries, those intellectual concerns have been inherited by philosophy. But while philosophy is the place to look for answers, religion continues to give us a rich mythology of our quest to apprehend the real. And if the real seems to remain beyond our grasp no matter how hard we study, or how many photographs we take, or how many stones we touch, the Christian story and all of its rich imagery at least gives us the consolation of making our exile a thing of great beauty.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Maybe the difference is that while both religion and philosophy tell us that we can’t go home again, religion tells us that a better home awaits us, while philosophy rather tells us that the idea of having a home is an illusion, that we never had a home to begin with and that we must face our homelessness.

    The philosophical virtues would be those with which we face our homelessness.

  2. Robert M Wallace

    Another revealing comparison would be to Plato. Plato famously suggests that we can sometimes “remember” pre-natal experience of the Forms, which are more fully real than what we experience every day. Plus, he suggests that a soul that seeks to know what’s really Good, can be more fully integrated and thus more “itself” than a soul that merely seeks pleasure or power or the like (Republic, books iv-vii). Becoming more fully oneself is, in a sense, “coming home.” Because of these parallels to the Christian story of separation from God, many Christian thinkers have thought that Plato was talking about much the same issue that their scriptures address. (So have Jewish and Muslim thinkers.) One can find parallels to this narrative also in modern Romantic writers like Hegel, Wordsworth, Whitman, Rilke, and so forth.

  3. Claire:
    Nice essay about our search for the authentic and the final acceptance that we may only find signs and symbols.

    St.Peter, you are the weakest link. He denied Christ three times and then the cock crowed but yet he is made the caretaker. In a worldly assessment St. Peter was a bad fit. There’s a paradox that might be applied to worldly affairs if we had the courage to do so. Pick the person that has failed a bit and that wasn’t always a winner.

    I walked the Acropolis in my bare feet. It’s a temple. It’s big. It’s numinous, tremendum et fascinans and Freud – it’s not all about you.

  4. Re Robert M Wallace Sept 9th

    “Forms, which are more fully real
    Good, can be more fully integrated”

    How can things be more fully integrated or more fully real?
    Are not things Real or, not Real?
    Integrated or, not Integrated?
    There surely are no degrees of Reality or Integration?
    Are these not ultimate concepts?

  5. Re Claire Creffield:-
    If I have understood you correctly you seem to have been searching for something that is not available to Human beings. One cannot raise the dead. Possibly Religion may satisfy some, that so called Reality has been grasped. I personally do not think a visit to Rome would answer the kind of questions I have, which are still very much the same as I asked my parents as a child. Maybe I am just lacking in sensitivity and thus will never gain enlightenment. One thing I know for sure is that I could not possibly go to Rome without a camera. It would leave a massive gap in my life.

  6. Robert M Wallace

    Hi Don Bird,
    Certainly many people assume that there are no degrees of reality. But Platonists disagree. For them, some things are more real than others. The easiest way to understand how they might think this is precisely through the idea of integratedness. Clearly there are degrees of integration. A pile of sand is less integrated than a plant. A plant is less integrated than an animal. A person who “has their head together” is more integrated than a person who’s all over the place. And there are presumably intermediate cases as well. Plato explores the process by which some humans seem to be more integrated than others; his favorite example of a highly integrated person is Socrates. And he suggests (and some of his followers are more explicit about this) that a person who is highly integrated is more real _as himself_ than one who’s less integrated. This is where the medieval Scholastics get their idea of God as the “most real thing” (ens realissimum).
    best, Bob W

  7. A very thoughtful and insightful article. Symbols are also a vital part of human experience and mean different things to different people. To me the christian cross is a symbol of atrocious torture and mans inhumanity to man. When I see it I wonder why anyone would choose to wear it ..but of course they would see it differently.

  8. Dianelos Georgoudis

    I think it is interesting to notice the epistemic fact that there is one metaphysics in which one has direct access to reality, indeed in which reality has the same nature one oneself actualizes, namely subjective idealism. Thus, it seems to me, subjective idealism allows one to ponder all these important childhood questions without feeling the pull of scepticism.

    As a bonus, subjective idealism pretty much entails theism, with all the benefits theism offers in comparison to other metaphysical theories. Thus, I say, by embracing subjective idealism one enjoys both a very secure epistemic footing as well as a well thought out and productive worldview. Take for example the problem of how to interpret quantum mechanics. On subjective idealism that problem simply disappears. The God thought which we perceive as the mathematical order present in quantum phenomena and which quantum mechanics so successfully describes is the end of the metaphysical line. There is nothing to “interpret”, no underlying “mechanism”, no further reality which “produces” these phenomena.

  9. “A plant is less integrated than an animal.”
    Really? perhaps if the “Great Chain of Being” were even remotely true, you could draw your conclusions, but its not.

  10. Hello Michael Fugate, Thanks for your comment, though it’s a little dogmatic. An animal is more integrated than a plant in that it can make decisions for itself about what to do and where to go, which a plant cannot. And parts of plants can often regenerate as independent plants, but parts of animals (because animals are more thoroughly integrated, more “whole”) can hardly ever do this.

  11. Nice article. A lot of this takes me back to Eco’s travels in hyperreality, and Beaudrillard’s ideas on simulacra and simulation.

    What is it we’re looking for and what exactly do we mean by the word ‘real’?

    Is there a useful answer to this, without resorting to taking language on holiday?

  12. Re Robert M Wallace:

    I note with interest your further comments. It seems to me that our definitions of the words Integrated and Real are at variance here, generating a mere verbal dispute. Such conditions can so often become the cause of long acrimonious disputes where all that is required is agreement on what words mean.

  13. On a slightly different note, I remember taking my son to the National Gallery at his request to see van Gogh’s paintings (inspired by the Doctor Who episode). He looked, then we wandered off to look at other things. Then he asked to go back. He looked and then asked, “Is that real?” I told him, yes, that was the actual canvas and the actual paint that the actual van Gogh had chosen, and the lumps of paint were the ones he had left on the canvas. “Wow”, said my son, and looked again at the painting, seemingly for the first time.

    I don’t know if there is a “real”, but I do think there can be a sense of continuity, that we are sharing a space where others lived before us. It’s more akin to Levinas’ shock of recognition of the Other than an intellectual discovery. It’s a perception before it’s put into words. And like recognising the Other, being irreparably separate from it is part of the experience.

  14. Hello Don Bird,
    Thanks for your friendly response. I can see how what I’ve said might seem to depend on a disputable definition of “real.” You’ll note that my original comment didn’t rely on that word. I said that Plato “suggests that a soul that seeks to know what’s really Good, can be more fully integrated and thus more ‘itself’ than a soul that merely seeks pleasure or power or the like (Republic, books iv-vii). Becoming more fully oneself is, in a sense, ‘coming home.’ Because of these parallels to the Christian story of separation from God, many Christian thinkers have thought that Plato was talking about much the same issue that their scriptures address.” The issue is about “being more fully ‘oneself.'” I imagine you’re familiar with the experience of failing, for various reasons, to be fully oneself. I think this is what Plato is primarily concerned about. And I’m suggesting that this is also what the Christian story of being separated from God, which Claire Creffield was so touched by, is really about. Certainly, as I said, quite a number of Christian thinkers have thought this.

  15. Stone Links: Answerable Questions - - pingback on September 11, 2012 at 3:24 pm
  16. Being “integrated” as a person must include the integration of that “person” with all reality that is available–sensory perceptions, memories, culture. Surely we have all experienced moments of being one with reality? To be fully human is to be in touch with all that surrounds, at any given moment, and that often brings to us forms of bliss–sometimes even when it isn’t all that blissful in a traditional sense (such as the pain involved in successfully finishing a long road race on foot or bicycle). Enough flexibility and creativity can awaken the ancient walls of Rome with the golden light of beauty and grace (and horror!), rolled into one. Or, lacking that, turn to the LungoTevere and be enlightened by the wild and beautiful scene of a Romano youth-god on a Vespa.

  17. Thanks very much for all the interesting comments. There is a lot in them to think about.

    Something that struck me today was that the activity of writing something, trying to get one’s thoughts in order, trying to state things with accuracy and precision, is a bit like the anxious photograph-taking of those tourists. It is an attempt to get a-hold of some bit of the truth and see it clearly and know, for a moment, that you have seen it (before it runs away again!).

  18. Re: Robert M Wallace, September 9, 2012 at 8:18 pm
    “A pile of sand is less integrated than a plant.”

    If the philosophical meaning of integration is to identify a behavior that is in harmony with the environment, then the statement makes no sense. A pile of sand has no less integration than a plant.

  19. Hi Dennis S.,

    “Integrate” apparently has two main meanings: 1. To make into a whole by bringing all parts together; unify. 2. a. To join with something else; unite. The first meaning is the one that I had in mind. A plant is “made into a whole” in a way that a pile of sand is not. Nothing to do, then, with “harmony with the environment.”

  20. Hi Cynthia,
    When you say that “Being ‘integrated’ as a person must include the integration of that ‘person’ with all reality that is available–sensory perceptions, memories, culture,” I have to make the same reply that I made to Dennis. The kind of “integration” that I had in mind is purely internal: the integration of a person’s various parts with each other. Plato’s examples of such parts are appetites, pride, and reasoning capacity.

  21. Claire Creffield September 12
    That is why I was rather surprised you did not take a camera.

  22. Claire, I suspect that the experience you were seeking as a tourist has to do with something you would consider the essential nature of the things you viewed. I agree with Sartre that there is no knowledge of essences, which of course exist only as our mental constructs. Reality is grasped not by touristic viewing and exploration, not by thought and reflection, not by study and contemplation. It is grasped by action in which one is engaged without reservation, which may be why so few philosophers seem to be able to come to terms with it except perhaps in the act of writing. Most people come closest to a true embrace of reality in the arms of a lover. But I think it also occurs in other kinds of peak experiences, such as surfing or skiing or watching you daughter win a hurdles race. Michael Jordan carrying his team to an NBA championship was in the full embrace of reality. Check into John Keats, both his poetry and his letters. Check into W. B. Yeats, “Among School Children”: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Check into Wm. Wordsworth’s “The Prelude,” especially the “spots of time” passages.

  23. To Robert and Claire,
    My comments regarding integration were general, and probably a dig at the world of words and images, which to me, seems like a religion that forgets we are both flesh and spirit. Both writing about and imaging scenes is a thin layering that disconnects one from what’s actually happening, and leaves out all the rich feast of life that’s right in front of one–the fellow tourist who has an annoying cough, the way the light on stones and traffic sound and fresh breeze (or swelter), the jet lagged and hungry body, mind-annoyed-at-being-ripped-off for a slice of fresh coconut–how all those things and many more combine to create an incredible and unique tapestry of experience, always waiting to be savored, and particular to where and when you are. I know I’m in Rome by the smell of the air getting out of the plane, then the flavor of great espresso at the airport bar. Restricting experience to a small subset of expectations is a recipe for dissatisfaction and disappointment,

  24. C.R. McCabe,

  25. C. R. McCabe, I do agree that there is sometimes a wonderful kind of integrity, a joyful loss of a separate self, when one is fully absorbed in an action. I’m not sure that, for me, it amounts to the kind of apprehending that I was thinking about in the blog post, though. But have you seen Tarkovsky’s film, The Sacrifice? I suspect that Tarkovsky identifies that loss of self in action with the attainment of something profoundly redemptive, not only for the actor but in the world itself. And the action he specifically has in mind is uniting with a lover. The “sacrifice” in question seems specifically to be the loss of oneself in another.
    That is all rather mystical, and I am feeling very confused right now about the relationships between a kind of philosophized mysticism on the one hand and the very properly prosaic business of analytical philosophy on the other. (I was also very unclear in the post about the separateness-but-mutual-involvement of psychological and philosophical elements in this business of felt exile from the world.)

  26. This joyful loss of a separate self sounds very like what “positive psychologists” call flow:

    I get it playing squash, and sometimes programming a computer, but never thinking about philosophy!

  27. Yes, thinking about philosophy is almost always painful! I very rarely experience flow, but when it comes it does seem to be the best kind of happiness.

  28. The childhood question of “who am I” has never gone away for me. It gets brought out all through life as I see through different lenses. What happens if it just doesn’t seem important to know the answer any more? One could argue that the richness and persistence of religion is due less to the colorful mythologies and beliefs than to the actual practices that join with the ritual, architecture, and belief systems: only the combination generates compassion and richness in life. It’s not about having answers to unanswerable questions. “Faith without works is dead, being alone.” as St James stated it in early Christian circles. Mystical practice, done appropriately and with dedication, hones skills (actual skill) to see with clarity, to really pay attention, to accept “whatever” without judgment, to love without limit. It’s possible to train to have peak experiences (flow) in everyday events, not only in extreme situations of physical love, competition, or on mountaintops. Doesn’t happen overnight. But it really starts to happen more and more.

  29. Oddly enough, I once joined a cult* – The School of Economic Science – and they were absolutely resolutely opposed to “flow”. They strove for the opposite – i.e., being maximally “present” even when undertaking the most trivial of tasks – I think because they saw flow as a sort of death of the self (or something – it wasn’t entirely coherent).

    *For research purposes only, I hasten to add.

  30. I too find a lot to agree with in what C.R. McCabe writes. And I can sympathize with Claire C.’s uncertainty about “loss of oneself in another,” and about the relationship between philosophized mysticism and prosaic analytical philosophy. Apropos of both of these issues, I think, the inner integration that I take Plato to be analyzing and encouraging in Republic books iv-vii, is not (in his view) in conflict with the “loss of self” that he seems to encourage in Diotima’s speech (the “sea of beauty”) in the Symposium. How can this be?? I think Plato correctly thinks that the highest inner integration is achieved in “mystical” non-separateness from everything. This is because a soul or self that is fully “itself,” fully self-governed, cannot be governed by boundaries that separate it from others. For if it were governed by such boundaries, it would be governed by its relation to these others, and thus not fully self-governed. This is where the apparently highly self-governed, highly “authentic” “selflessness” of people like Rumi, Meister Eckhart, or Keats comes from. They are so much themselves that they have no need to insist on their boundaries.

  31. Flow; Philosophy Final examinations I think. I did not know it was called Flow then, but without it I was going nowhere, I was sure.

  32. Beautifully said.

  33. And perhaps it’s obvious, but I think “flow” is the same experience–very self-governed, centered, but not “self-conscious,” not preoccupied with its boundaries as such. It’s the best of both worlds: it engages us fully, as our whole selves, not just as (say) a particular appetite or emotion, but this engagement leaves us no space in which to be concerned about ourselves, as such. The self is fulfilled in going beyond preoccupation with “itself.”

  34. While I never experience what is described as “flow” while reading philosophy, my experience of generating philosophical ideas is similar to that described in the Wikipedia article.

    Maybe that’s why my philosophical ideas are so askew.

    I had the same experience many years ago when I wrote poetry.

    If I did not experience flow doing it, I would not bother with philosophy at all.

    When I stopped flowing (dried up), I lost all interest in poetry. Don’t even read it anymore. Still can quote it a bit.

  35. Robert,
    Ever seen a sponge? or a flatworm? Biology is definitely not your forte.

  36. Michael F. – That sort of intervention is not okay here. You need to make an argument, and to avoid stark claims of the nature of your last sentence. Thanks.

  37. Michael F.,

    As far as the “integration” point, Robert says “but parts of animals (because animals are more thoroughly integrated, more “whole”) can hardly ever do this.”

    It is important to note that he writes “hardly ever” and this is consistent with the fact that sponges and flatworms (who have legendary regenerative capabilities)do this. Robert’s general point seems true: most animals lack the capabilities possessed by flatworms and sponges while many plants have the capabilities he ascribes to them.

    In any case, I hope that you will continue to contribute to the discussions here at TPM-that is what philosophy is about.

  38. In a much more mundane and less philosophical way, I experienced a similar frustration at the lack of accessibility to the ancient Roman fora, but attributed it to the lack of meaningful curating or labeling or interpretive markings or signage. I have been to other places, and was far more able to imagine the historical reality, because the context was better explained. Pompeii, for example, is much easier to understand, because you can place yourself inside the milieu, almost literally (although a lot of the artifacts are in the museum in Naples, and not in situ). I would have been better off at the Forum Romanum with the “eyewitness” guidebook, which has superimposed images showing the ruins of what is left, overlaid with renderings of what the ruins looked like when complete.

Leave a Comment

NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Trackbacks and Pingbacks: