Climbing the Dark: William Desmond on Wonder, the Cave, and the Underworld

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Steven Edward Knepper

Abstract

This essay examines how the philosopher William Desmond reimagines two great “imaginative universals”: the ascent out of the cave and the descent into the underground.  Desmond uses these imaginative universals to explore the possibility of re-awakening wonder in a purportedly disenchanted world and of thereby affirming the goodness of being.  In the tradition of Plato, Desmond uses ascent out of the cave as a metaphor for this re-awakening.  Desmond notes that, in the wake of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, philosophy has often been more interested in descent, in digging down beneath the cave in search of a dark origin in will.  Desmond argues, though, that such an origin cannot yield the light that even Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s projects require. As an alternative way of conceptualizing descent, Desmond reconsiders another ancient “imaginative universal”—the descent into the underworld.  Drawing on this imaginative universal, Dante and Shakespeare depict kenotic descents that are also paradoxically ascents, descents that undo the fixations and self-delusions of the will and allow for a rebirth of compassion and wonder.  Ultimately, the example of Dante suggests that a widespread reawakening of wonder might require renewed porosity between philosophy, art, and religion.     

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Author Biography

Steven Edward Knepper, Virginia Military Institute

Steven Knepper teaches in the Department of English, Rhetoric, and Humanistic Studies at the Virginia Military Institute.