Where does the heretic belong? Notes on Philosophical friendship

People want to go out on a branch, but they don’t want to go out on a limb.

Belief systems are always based in an appeal to authority. There is always a heretical founder and a canonical set of teachings (usually written) that are imbued with the founder’s authority as an everlasting proxy.

No one wants to be a heretic. The risk is to great. Ever since the Protestant Reformation made it possible for us to think of ourselves as members of a ‘priesthood of all believers’ (a concept that I believe Martin Luther came upon while sitting on the toilet) we have assumed an active role in building the world views we live in.

The theme is not ours. It is too lonely to write our own. We belong by embracing a common song, and assert our individuality through variation.

People buy ready-made ideas. They are sold everywhere, and even given away; but the ones that come free of charge prove to be even more expensive, and people are already beginning to realize that. The result is to benefit none and the same old disorder. […] It’s even worse for one who decides to study and to understand things on their own, and still worse for one who makes a sincere declaration of his intention.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, A Writer’s Diary

It is for this reason that the QAnon conspiracy captivated so many. All are bound together by a common set of texts, the meanings of which are so obscure that any number of interpretations might fit. All are welcome to participate and to contribute their interpretations, but only one or a few might be chosen to be correct by the collective. The power of QAnon comes from the power to combine the pleasure we get through imagination, the belonging we feel in a shared set of beliefs, and the thrill we receive at the prospect of being ‘chosen.’

Of course, this is not unique to QAnon. These are attributes shared by all modern communities. It’s how religion works. And it’s how Academia functions.

It’s how the world of the internet and of social media work. Gardens protected by walls built by dogmatic belief. ‘Stoics’ on Twitter, for example, retweet quotes from the ancients and genuflect before popularizers like Ryan Holiday, Tim Ferriss, and Mark Manson (even though Mark himself claims to be more aligned to Buddhism and Existentialism). Each of these authors are smart and, I believe, authentic in their individual efforts to make sense of their world. But they leave dogmatists in their wake. And they are not members of the clubs that their writing inspires.

There are times when I lament my seeming inability to find and join a large group of like-minded people. Part of me misses the collective experience of the Church (or feels obligated to have that experience). But, then again, I also know that my greatest joy comes from the conversations I have with small groups of trusted friends who, despite differences in belief, nonetheless share a common set of sensibilities. They share a sense of openness and playfulness at the same time as they share an intensity and an urgency. They are dilettantes and bricoleurs in how they navigate the world of ideas, but they nonetheless navigate that world in order to solve real problems.

In short, belonging doesn’t mean you need to belong to an immense community. It doesn’t mean an embrace of dogmatism. It doesn’t mean finding a ‘Church.’

Through an embrace of friendship and intimate connection defined by honesty, kindness, generosity, and a genuine commitment to make sense of the world here and now, it becomes possible to be a heretic and to belong at the same time.

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