Abbie in Paris in Confessions, “Beginning-Wise”


Last night I was trying to cope with a digestive disaster and wondering what on earth could have caused it, since it didn’t seem to have the usual obvious connection with food.  Two explanations presented themselves.

First, a possible reaction to the second Pfizer vaccine dose.  Digestive turmoil is among the listed reactions, although it’s rare.  The second, which Jerry suggested: emotional? 

Hmm. What could have brought on an emotional reaction that my mind couldn’t handle and so transferred to my body?  Yesterday I was going through the copy editing of Confessions of a Young Philosopher, my book that’s scheduled for publication this year.  It’s been an experience.

I’d forgotten the impact of this book.  Reading it now, I’m quite fascinated, and (forgive me) bowled over by the talent playing over every page.  Every sentence isn’t gold, but every page is. 

Let me try to explain the title word “confession.”  St Augustine, in 4th century North Africa, wrote the first book bearing that title.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote another, in 18th-century France.  Books in that genre show two things simultaneously: first, the subjective development of the writer reliving key incidents and phases from his actual life and second, the progress of a life motivated by one contending worldview after another. 

As the author gets disillusioned with his original worldview and proceeds to the next, the confession becomes at the same time the memoir of the author’s culture or era.  So a confession portrays the writer’s search for himself and search for truth in his age. 

A highly-regarded Australian philosopher, who’d read Confessions in an earlier, less-well-developed version, drew these comparisons with Augustine and Rousseau and wrote to ask me,    

         “Has any woman done this?” 

Every scene in Confessions is set out in rich, dramatic strokes with this defining feature of the plotline: key details are also landmarks of the thought-world I was moving through.  Europe, America, youthful lives caught in their earnest tragedies, religions and irreligions, communism, the “impossible position” of the Jews, race and its complications, man/woman seduction and eternal love, and what it meant to be a Jewish girl venturing into the hyper-masculine precincts of philosophy.

What happens in the book is that the plotline unfolds simultaneously at ground level and in the world-of-ideas.  Think of the way the Bible tells you simultaneously what’s actually happening and what God thinks about it.  Confessions has its own double plotline: the real happening and its conceptual mirroring or shadow.  That’s the genre of a confession.

But the intensities are at one point dirge-like, at another full of frantic effort to find one’s footing and not be deceived.  The search is the one we all face:

how to live out the promise of one’s life.

The book is in three parts: I Beginning-Wise, II Analytic and III Another Paradigm.  So far, I’ve read through Part II.  There the writer meets a set of factors that close off the promise of her life.  The promise is not closed off by fashionable attitudes or emotional-level traumas.  Rather it’s as if a competent surveyor had explored every exit and found each one barred.

That’s a point hard to prove and, I suppose, many just won’t get it.  Many readers will have suggestions to propose to the girl I was, quick fixes of every kind, such remedies as the culture offered then.  (That’s what it’s like to tell your troubles to a poor listener.)

For me at the time, however, palliatives couldn’t mask the underlying realities.  I knew I was foutu.  (That’s French.  Never mind what it means.)

So all that prepares what I’m about to read in Part III, Another Paradigm.  Or would have read, had my innards not gone to the nether regions.  In Part III, because I can’t see a way out of a landscape marked by “no exit” signs, I enter into a gnostic worldview.  What’s that?

Actually, for individuals and for cultures, it’s a common method of hoped-for escape.  The gnostic views the actual world as bad — a delusive place — created by a bad divinity who is a deceiver.  Gnosis means knowledge.  The gnostic claims to have secret knowledge by means of which he or she can tear off the veil that conceals the true world of spirit.  Sometimes (as with “libertine gnosticism”) the adept will break the norms of the actual world in order to hasten the advent of the hidden world of spirit.  There are gnostic cults, entire gnostic systems of belief, and utopian political views that are recognizably gnostic.

According to philosopher of history Eric Voegelin, people often cannot bear the strain of life in the actual world and – seeking a flawless world – leap imaginatively into that alternate reality.  In Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience, historian Richard Landes shows how these modes of escapism have intruded sizeably in real history.  Historians tend to downplay these phases, perhaps embarrassed by their apparent irrationality.  Hans Jonas, in The Gnostic Religion, points out the similarity of contemporary existentialism to the gnosticism of the ancient world.

What ought I to have done, instead of what I did do?  Should I have prayed honestly and fervently asked the God I believe in now to open a way for me?

The peculiar thing is that, though I don’t at present agree with the last-ditch atheism I adhered to back then, my deeper suspicion about that situation does not take me to theistic remedies for the girl I was.

I might be wrong, but my present hypothesis is that God did not want me to find an exit.  He preferred that I live through the gnostic calamities of Part III and come back to tell the world about them.

From our false or mistaken views

we can sometimes extract the real thing.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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