Tag Archives: leadership quotes

Kant or Castaneda?

Fernando J. Grijalva and I have never met, but I hope we do someday. We’ve shared ideas, disagreed, and exchanged views, entirely online, usually in 140 characters or less. I consider him an intellectual companion, a “co-learner,” to use the word Fernando likes to use. Yesterday we shared an error.

It started when Fernando posted this quotation, attributed to Kant:

I was intrigued, and wondered what word Kant used here for “lives,” since that word (which, along with the nominative form “life,” never fails to intrigue me) seemed to be the crux of the thought. So I went searching, and in my haste I thought I found it in the Critique of Pure Reason.

Instead, it turns out, my quick scan of the Google search results misled me. This morning, when I tried to pick up the trail, my search led me not to the German text of Kant’s Critique, but to Carlos Castaneda’s A Separate Reality. Here is the passage in full. Don Juan is speaking:

‘I told you once that our lot as men is to learn, for good or bad,’ he said. ‘I have learned to see and I tell you that nothing really matters; now it is your turn; perhaps someday you will see and you will know then whether things matter or not. For me nothing matters, but for you perhaps everything will. You should know by now that a man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting, nor by thinking about what he will think when he has finished acting. A man of knowledge chooses a path with heart and follows it; and then he looks and rejoices and laughs; and then he sees and knows. He knows that his life will be over altogether too soon; he knows that he, as well as everybody else, is not going anywhere; he knows, because he sees, that nothing is more important than anything else. In other words, a man of knowledge has no honor, no dignity, no family, no name, no country, but only life to be lived, and under these circumstances his only tie to his fellow men is his controlled folly. Thus a man of knowledge endeavors, and sweats, and puffs, and if one looks at him he is just like any ordinary man, except that the folly of his life is under control. Nothing being more important than anything else, a man of knowledge chooses any act, and acts it out as if it matters to him. His controlled folly makes him say that what he does matters and makes him act as if it did, and yet he knows that it doesn’t; so when he fulfills his acts he retreats in peace, and whether his acts were good or bad, or worked or didn’t, is in no way part of his concern.’ (emphasis mine)

Reading this again after all these years – as a teenager I devoured Castaneda’s books, but as an adult I’ve never gone back to them – I am surprised and impressed by the power of Castenada’s writing; at the same time it’s hard to believe anyone ever mistook this stuff for anthropology.

While I wouldn’t put it past the writer who made Don Juan out of whole cloth to have channeled or lifted something from Kant, here he sounds more like he is channeling some mix of Erasmus and Nietzsche.

Quoted out of context, the line about the man of knowledge sounds like serious philosophy, but turns out to be pseudo-anthropological fantasy (which may, in turn, have something philosophically serious to offer). In context, it’s not quite the lesson in pragmatism Fernando thought it was. So, for now, unless someone can find the sentence in Kant, Castaneda should get all the credit.

Another misattribution: be careful out there!

It happened again today. Just now, a philosophy Twitter bot posted this quotation, attributing it to Cicero.

A noble sentiment. As of this writing it’s been retweeted 54 times and favorited 16, just an hour or so after it was first posted.

The only trouble is, these are not the inspiring words of the orator and statesman Cicero, but the words of Orfellus, “a peasant, a philosopher unschooled and rough,” as rendered by the poet Horace at the close of Satire II.ii.

Like Horace himself, Orfellus was dispossessed of his property; and he understands that neither he nor the new landlord, Umbrenus, has a legitimate claim to the land. It belongs to “no one for good,” but is ceded for use (cedet in usum). The Loeb trot continues:

Nature, in truth, makes neither him nor me nor anyone else lord of the soil as his own. He drove us out, and he will be driven out by villainy, or by ignorance of the quirks of the law, or in the last resort by an heir of longer life. Today the land bears the name of Umbrenus; of late it had that of Orfellus; to no one will it belong for good, but for use it will pass, now to me and now to another. Live then, as brave men, and with brave hearts confront the strokes of fate (quocirca vivite fortes / fortiaque adversis opponite pectora rebus).

I can’t figure out the source of the confusion, how or where the quotation came to be attributed to Cicero, how Cicero’s prose and Horace’s verse could be confused, and I don’t really know what to make of it all, except to reiterate that most books of quotations and nearly all quotation bots and sites proffering quotations are borrowing, cutting and pasting, or sloppily compiling from other compilations, and never working from original sources. Maybe that sort of spadework went out with the keeping of commonplace books. No matter, don’t trust any attribution that doesn’t cite chapter and verse; and even then, verify.

And if fortune is averse, front its blows with brave hearts. No, that’s not Mel Gibson.