The Mysticism and Ecological Sensibility of John Moriarty

John Moriarty, the Irish philosopher and mystic, was as detached from the physical world as a philosopher can be. He chose to live remotely; that is, outside of the city, though he had travelled some as a younger man. In later life, he returned to his roots in Kerry, where he was buried – near Muckross – in 2007. In reading and studying Moriarty recently, I was struck by how familiar his work seemed to be, and how it danced across the gamut of modern western philosophy and philosophers.

Most of us grew up in a story; we don’t grow up in a house built of bricks and mortar, we are housed in a great story.

John Moriarty

As a starting point, Moriarty’s youth saw him catapulted from his comfortable orthodoxy of Catholic Ireland upon reading Darwin, and he fell out of his story. I was immediately transported to Ernst Cassirer and Aby Warburg’s library in Hamburg (now at the University of London) and their dedication to the idea and importance of mythology and myth making. Furthermore, it called to mind Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy?, and in particular their assertion that the job of the philosopher is to create concepts.

Moriarty’s model – that we grow up in a story, a personal story – suggests that we are all creatures of invention, products of abstract and (in a sense) arbitrary notions of existence and why we are here, or how we have come to be where we are. This is infrastructural; it is a kind of existential scaffolding that gives us a point of reference (there are echoes of relativism, or the search for / lack of an anchoring throughout his work). Whether the physiological Darwinism of evolution and species derivations over millions of years, or the Christian recency of Ussher’s ‘counting of all the begats’, as he puts it, each is itself a story, one that aligns with where we are, to an extent where we might be going, and certainly where we have come from. Whether it’s true in some sense is immaterial; it is the story itself that matters.  

Aby Warburg, the scion of the nineteenth century banking dynasty that was became Warburg Pincus and today persists, had forsaken his inheritance in favour of his siblings on the proviso that he be allowed to acquire any book he should desire. Having built an impressive library, the philosopher Ernst Cassirer was appointed as his librarian in 1919. Cassirer ‘…understood man’s development through symbols as a continuous process of liberation that found its starting point in conceptual forms from which mythical thought derived.’ In other words, stories.

For Deleuze and Guattari, their sense of concept creation as the work of philosophers is in some sense a study in ontology, and the formation of the real. While ‘…sciences, arts and philosophies are all equally creative…only philosophy creates concepts in the strict sense,’ they wrote. ‘There are no simple concepts. Every concept has components and is defined by them.’ I don’t know whether stories as Moriarty understands them, or mythologies as Cassirer would have it, amount to the kind of fundamental concepts that D&G have in mind. There remains a common thread of first principles amongst each, however, as they all excavate around our understanding of the world. There is a critical distinction here, it should be added, between Moriarty and D&G. Moriarty does not seek to create concepts, as perhaps Aristotle may have done with his physics, or Descartes with his geometry. Moriarty has no such grand ambitions; he’s just trying to understand.

Two other philosophers who leap from Moriarty’s page are Spinoza and Bergson. Spinoza’s concept of god (small g) seems to chime sonorously with the bulk of Moriarty’s thinking. The interconnectedness of things (Moriarty – ‘tonight I’ll let the river do my thinking for me’), and the kind of monist instincts of Spinoza, that there is only one substance of which we and all things physical and otherwise are a part, are certainly aligned. Bergson, the vaunted philosopher of time, is perhaps possessed of concepts not directly addressed by Moriarty in my reading, though time is a constant question for Moriarty. One certainly feels that Bergson’s distinction between objective time, that of minutes and seconds and mechanical, measurable duration, and la durée, or “lived time”, the time of our subjective experience, is something that I have no doubt Moriarty the mystic would have found common cause with.

One final twentieth century philosopher whose thinking resonated while reading Moriarty was the French mystic (and all round extraordinary person) Simone Weil. As Moriarty thought about thinking itself, and how to detach oneself from the strictures of education and the socialised subject, he worked through many modes of meditation and other practices. Weil too recognised these shortcomings in human thought, arguing that ‘…our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.’ Weil cried out for a change in attention, and how we listened to and perceived things around us as a prescription for imperfect thinking. We were, it seemed, missing something; something that was right in front of us all this time.

It’s difficult to know without further research how much exposure Moriarty would have had to any of these folks – though he knew Spinoza alright, who is referenced in Nostos, and Nietzsche certainly. But for Moriarty, his project was never one of alignment with, or criticism of the academy. His work is deeply personal, and highly localized, to Ireland, to Kerry (latterly) and to the laneway outside his little cottage and his neighbours up the road. In some ways his is not a philosophy at all (at least in an academic sense), as we might consider a universal attempt at rationalising the peculiar state in which we find ourselves as human beings. Moriarty rarely makes any attempt to generalise, to impose, or to over-simplify. His is a complex weave of thoughts and ideas, history and language, locality and self; ultimately, it seems, Moriarty is just telling a story.

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