Ranier Maria Rilke
Ever Widening Circles
I live my life in ever widening circles, each superseding all the previous ones. Perhaps I never shall succeed in reaching the final circle, but attempt I will. I circle around God, the ancient tower, and have been circling for a thousand years, and still I do not know: am I a falcon, a storm, or a continuing great song?
—Ranier Maria Rilke, from Das Studenbuch 1905
Welcome to the new year! Another circle around the sun.
All this month we’ll consider the life and biography of four special philosophers. I say special because they hold an important place for me personally. They stand out from the rest in a way that isn’t intellectual, but purely emotional and deeply felt.
Rilke, for example, has taught me more than almost anyone in my life—including those with whom I’ve had a personal relationship.
He is the product of a relatively dysfunctional family—a father frustrated by his lot as a military officer and an aristocratic mother who feels superior to her husband. So much so that she leaves him to carve out a life more connected to the aristocracy.
Rilke was born and would remain sick for the majority of his life. In fact, he spends the better part of adulthood constantly on the move—partly due to a homesickness for which no city provides a cure, and partly because he seeks a climate which can support his struggling immune system.
In an effort to maintain the family class, Rilke’s father sends him to the Austrian military academy as a teenager to become an officer. There, Rilke demonstrates promise as an intellectual but struggles with the physical demands of military training.
Eventually, he leaves the academy and finds his way into art, poetry, and authentic expression of the self through the written word. He produces works not only of immense literary genius, but deeply complex philosophical knowledge.
The above poem is perhaps his most famous, tangentially expressing a relationship to god-as-nature, karma, and the oneness of all things.
Like Buddhism or Taoism, Rilke’s philosophy seems to weaken or become diluted the more one talks about it directly. It is much better understood not through the lens of intellectualization, but feeling—mit gefuhl, as it is said in German.
His work speaks less to fixed truths, but more to the truth that each of us feels inside—our personal truth, our individual philosophy.
One of the most fascinating works remaining from Rilke is a series of letters written to Franz Xaver Kappus.
What I find fascinating about their exchange is the way in which they are connected. Kappus is experiencing major evolutions in his personal life as a 19 year old cadet at the Austrian military academy. He has heard of a Rilke through a common instructor with whom they both studied.
Kappus desperately wants to write good poetry and philosophy, and sends Rilke a letter asking for advice. Hundreds of letters will be exchanged between the two, and today you can read through them in a collection known as Letters to a Young Poet.
Rilke tells Kappus,
You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of you of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write.
In reading the words it feels so apparent that we could spend a lifetime hiding behind intellect and the acquisition of knowledge. We could stoically seek that which is objectively accurate and wholly true in every circumstance—we could be lovers of fact and truth.
But the definition of philosophy is the love of wisdom.
And wisdom is not the memorization of that which happened or was said. Rather, wisdom is the dance between the world we experience and the way those experiences are translated in our inmost being.
Wisdom is a dance, not a march.
And so this year let us agree to pursue philosophy not with a destination in mind—intellect, knowledge, status.
Rather, let us agree to do the work. The work of self-reflection, self-honestly, self-compassion, and a commitment to authenticity.
A truly wise person knows at their core who they are and what they are about.
To put it another way: the beginning of wisdom is knowledge of your authentic self. There are few treasures more precious—and rare—than this.
I wish you well on your journey to the center as we live together in ever widening circles.