“To or To Be?”
So very abrupt in its asking, it hardly captures the rhythmically measured quality that Shakespeare summoned into service to display the deceptively simple symmetry of fateful decisions.
But here, rather than the “immortal” Shakespearian expression, the seemingly nonsensical “To or To Be?” encourages an elision that much more adequately expresses how things can so easily become the opposite of what they seem at first appearance.
“The examined life”
“The examined life”, the motto sustaining and perhaps even validating many a self-professed philosophers and helping elevate their commitment, or for some burden, to thought and reflection to an a religious-like purpose or path.
But “the examined life” can suddenly be flipped into its opposite when the copula is introduced and the subject who placed themselves above society To think and reflect on it from their privileged vantage point becomes an object To Be scrutinised, measured, criticised by that very society and the standards and values it has established.
I’m reminded of a line in Proust: “The hermit is the person to whom the judgment of a society matters the most.” And therefore he removes himself from the domain of the social in order to protect himself from that judgment.
Examining Escapist Strategies
The hermit escapes the examination they are put through by society’s judgment. A line of flight, a deterritorialisation. Throwing oneself into the speculative, creative, reflective, and even esoteric, is motivated by a desire to go meta: that is, a questioning of the very grounds of possibility and legitimacy of such a judgment to begin with. But such a strategy, with varying degrees of abstraction from the social, ends up turning in on itself as the concrete, experimental, existential conditions of their own existence (that a “life”, as such, permits them) forms the ground for their examination and can only ultimately leading to an internalist epistemology.
So then, “To or To Be?”
It doesn’t really matter if both strategies lead to internalising gestures with very little possibility of rigorous political engagement.