Impractical Magic

I have a nascent interest in knowing something about Aristotle’s personal life. All of us have at least some exposure to Aristotle, thanks to his influence on philosophy and modern modes of inquiry and thought. But few people know anything of substance about the man’s personal life: where he was born, how he was educated, etc. I suspect access to  reliable information about those topics has been severely limited by the passage of centuries and the decay of most of the records that might have existed in Aristotle’s time. My only option, then, is to travel back in time to the year of Aristotle’s birth, 384 BC. But how do we know with any degree of certainty that he was born in that year? Or that he died in 322 BC? How do we know he was born in Stagira, Northern Greece, or that was reared by a guardian after his father’s death when Aristotle was a child? We know these things because Wikipedia tells us. Wikipedia is today what Encyclopedia Britannica was in my youth. Except information presented in Encyclopedia Britannica was, I am told, subject to rigorous verification; far more than its modern unofficial successor.

When I was a kid, I could get lost in “the encyclopedia.” Its many volumes contained so much interesting “stuff!” I know I used to read the encyclopedia—I am certain of it—but my memories of losing myself in those volumes are hazy, faded snapshots at best. I wish I could bring those foggy memories into sharper, clearer focus. There’s so much I could learn if only I could recall aspects of my life that now are hidden behind a thick, dusty curtain of time. I wonder how I would have been different if I had been able to sit at Aristotle’s feet? I wonder how, listening to him share his knowledge and learning from him how best to employ critical thought, I might have been better able to think critically? I suppose I’ll never know. At best I can only imagine. I can only dream who I might have been, had I been personally influenced by arguably the most influential philosopher of all time.


Even a modest amount of out-of-the-ordinary motion stretches fallow muscles and tendons. One’s arms and shoulders and legs—lethargic and unaccustomed to responding to minimal demands—object to such simple but unusual requirements by exaggerated howling, as if they were being subjected to brutal torture. I know this because I did a bit of painting yesterday. That activity required me to move a bit more than usual—reach up toward the ceiling, bend toward the floor, stretch and twist, and otherwise expose my body to positions it apparently finds offensive. This morning, I feel a little like I slept on a bed of sharp rocks after having my arms and legs bound with wire rope into deeply unnatural positions.  That notwithstanding, I shall return for more torture this morning because, otherwise, the process of painting the house will take far too long. While painting, I’ll take an occasional break to try to adjust doors so they close and latch properly. And I’ll do some deep cleaning—it seems the people who used to live in the house did not see the value in removing dirt and grime from stoves, ovens, door casings, shelves, countertops, floors, and other out-of-the-way places. One day, though, all this will be rewarded with a beautiful, functional, immaculately clean abode. I say “one day” because, at the rate I am going, the process will be complete far, far in the future. No. Stop that. I must maintain a positive outlook. I must adjust my attitude by becoming an optimist.


With the proper tools and the knowledge and skills necessary to use them to their maximum potential, the limits of my ability to make things would be impossible to reach. But that’s true of everyone, isn’t it? All we need are tools and knowledge and skills—and the interest in using them and the discipline to do so. What world would we have today if everyone, from the first upright human to the baby born moments ago, used their brains to the fullest? They would either create or otherwise get access to the tools necessary to excel. The universe that today seems so impossibly huge would seem much smaller, because we would have learned so much more about it. Humankind’s potential would have taken us to levels heretofore only dreamed about in wildly fictional stories.

But we haven’t used our abilities to their fullest. And we’ve allowed damaged emotions and lethargy to derail us. I suppose we could start over, but after seeing what we’ve done with what we have, why would we?


I’ve listened again in recent days to Happens to the Heart, a song written and performed by Leonard Cohen and published after his death. Cohen’s poetry overwhelms me with its enormous store of emotion and meaning. His music carries me to places I do not know or understand, but that mean a great deal to me. I am in a philosophical mood this morning. Cohen has taken me there, courtesy of his music and my memories of listening to it since my college days.


Time to re-enter the world of practical action. I often prefer the realm of impractical magic.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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