Sunday, May 20, 2018

The last sentence

“... a separate spot in Hell ... for tyrants ...”  (La Boétie)

Well begun is half done. So authors give often special attention to the first sentence of their work. In particular novelists do. But also the end of a piece of writing gets much attention and some last sentences have become famous. “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.” It’s the end of Hemingway’s A farewell to arms. It’s simple and effective, after you have finished reading the novel. It makes you think of what has happened.
Philosophical works sometimes have last sentences that rather open a new discussion than that they close one. Some last sentences have become famous. Indeed, the last sentence of Spinoza’s Ethics is such a one:
“Sed omnia praeclara tam difficilia, quam rara sunt.”
“But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”
The idea, incidentally, behind this sentence is not Spinoza’s but goes back to Cicero. But makes it this last sentence less valuable?
Even more famous is how Wittgenstein ends his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” And just what we cannot say, is the most important in life, as Wittgenstein suggests in the passage before this quote: Philosophy begins just now when we had thought that we had wound up our argument. And we cannot even say it in words! Many readers will get here the feeling “??????”.
I simply want to present some examples of last sentences of philosophical works, without much comment. The selection is rather arbitrary. It says more about which books I have in my library and what popped up in my mind about what might be interesting than that I have selected the quotes in a specific way. But there is an idea behind it: Last sentences are often as important or more important than the text they conclude: Just a last sentence can make you think and be a new start for new thoughts.

- “And it shall be well with us both in this life and in the pilgrimage of a thousand years which we have been describing.” Plato, The Republic (ca. 380 BC).

- “But because the exigencies of action often oblige us to make up our minds before having leisure to examine matters carefully, we must confess that the life of man is very frequently subject to error in respect to individual objects, and we must in the end acknowledge the infirmity of our nature.” – René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (1641).

- “...I believe God has reserved, in a separate spot in Hell, some very special punishment for tyrants and their accomplices.” – Étienne de La Boétie, The discourse of voluntary servitude (ca. 1548).
I think that both for religious and for non-religious readers the meaning is clear: How many tyrants haven’t been overthrown during the past years?

In this quotation I have added the last sentence but one in order to make the last sentence easier to understand. As you can see here, German philosophers of Kant’s time were famous for their long sentences.
- “The critical path alone is still open. If my reader has been kind and patient enough to accompany me on this hitherto untravelled route, he can now judge whether, if he and others will contribute their exertions towards making this narrow footpath a high road of thought, that which many centuries have failed to accomplish may not be executed before the close of the present—namely, to bring Reason to perfect contentment in regard to that which has always, but without permanent results, occupied her powers and engaged her ardent desire for knowledge.” Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason (1781).

- “Philosophy must always continue to be the guardian of this science; and although the public does not take any interest in its subtle investigations, it must take an interest in the resulting doctrines, which such an examination first puts in a clear light.” Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Practical Reason (1788).

Spinoza is not the only one who (actually) ends his work with a quotation. The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty finished his Philosophy of Perception (1945) with a sentence borrowed from A. de Saint-Exupéry, Pilote de Guerre:
- “Man is but a network of relationships, and these alone matter to him.”

- “... [After] so many centuries of folly orchestrated by the retributive spirit, it finally does seem time ‘to give peace a chance.’ ” Martha Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness (2016).

My last quotation in this little list is actually not the last sentence but one of the last sentences of the work. It’s from Montaigne’s Essays (1595) and philosophically it closes the work but also the author’s life:
- “Tis to much purpose to go upon stilts, for, when upon stilts, we must yet walk with our legs; and when seated upon the most elevated throne in the world, we are but seated upon our breech.”

Exceptionally, I don’t give detailed references of the quotations. They are all easy to find on the Internet (for instance on (or send me a message).

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