Google “Georgian philosopher,” and Merab Mamardashvili is the name that comes up first. The late philosopher is known and respected internationally. In today’s Georgia, too, his heritage can be widely seen: Mamardashvili’s thoughts have come up in various educational activities; his writings are on shelves of every local bookshop; his memorable quotes, featured on colorful cards, regularly make rounds on social media; he often becomes the number one choice when teenage Georgians look for a bright mind to look up to; and whenever the country is going through another crisis – real or perceived – there’s always someone who will seek reason in the thought of the revered wise man.
But is it Mamardashvili’s ideas that fascinate his native country, or do we simply love the idea of having a contemporary philosopher? Does that add to our (inter)national street cred?
Going through his interviews, one cannot but sense a lonely man who loved solitude, who had trouble fitting into the noisy propaganda of the Soviet system and an even bigger problem of fitting into the megaphone-powered movement that came next.
Here is Nini and this week’s Dispatch, to chase the ghosts of philosophers in the solitude-deprived yet loneliness-inducing streets of Tbilisi.
Merab Mamardashvili was born in 1930 in Gori, a city in Eastern Georgia that also happens to be the birthplace of Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin. But the lives and visions of the two men would take opposite turns. If the latter turned into a despot to build a repressive ideological apparatus, the former would have to find himself, and freedom of his thought, in the claustrophobic corridors of that system.
Having spent his formative years during the darkest period of Soviet rule, Mamardashvili still managed to make a career as a philosopher in Moscow. That career would give him the rare chance to get acquainted with European enlightenment thought and find inspiration in Kantian and Cartesian traditions. And he would never be the same again: those encounters would turn into a somehow familiar experience of reuniting with something that has been there all the time, silently roaming one’s head and waiting to be discovered, defined, and cultivated.
And with the excitement of a child who saw something and couldn’t wait to tell others about it, he’d share his discoveries – and questions – in the lectures and interviews he gave. “We’ve never gotten a taste of enlightenment, a real power of thinking with one’s own mind, when you possess the inner ability to figure it out on your own, to lead yourself without a lamp or hands you can lean on,” he said in one of his later addresses.
But what the Georgian philosopher seemed to be most passionate about was thinking about thinking itself. His love of conversations and dialogues got him dubbed as Georgian Socrates, and his preoccupation with rational thought and questions of consciousness never turned his visions dry. In his interviews and conversations, Mamardashvili would repeatedly show an understanding of personal, human, or national influences on one’s judgment, only to distance himself from these influences.
However, taking the liberty of thinking freely inevitably alienated the philosopher from Soviet academic circles. In the last decade of the Soviet Union’s existence, he returned from the imperial center to his native land. Eventually, he’d engage in national conversations and try to play his part in collective efforts to define Georgia’s future as Soviet collapse started to look imminent. And this is where the loner faced his limits.
A solitary man
The independence movement that gained momentum in the late 1980s in Georgia was to signal the much-awaited break from Soviet constraints. But lifting bureaucratic restrictions did not immediately translate into freeing oneself from their poisonous legacy, which, Mamardashvili worried, stood in the way of building a better, freer society. The old refused to take responsibility for the past and face their flaws, while the exhalted youth preferred to look for inspiration in the mythical heroes and knights.
“If individuals are unable to put a mirror in front of them and face their reflection to the point of sickness, they won’t be able to find in themselves the necessary inner power for change,” the philosopher warned at the time.
The emerging nationalist fever strived to replace the departing communist dogmas. But the clash of radical ideologies risked squeezing the less pious in between. Often skeptical of more militant ethno-nationalist sentiments, Mamardashvili was a big proponent of an introspective “war with thyself” – a battle that, he believed, could stop people from going to war with each other. The thinker seemed to have drawn from both liberal and republican traditions: he hoped that Georgians and other Soviet peoples would be able to get rid of restrictive legacies by retreating into (Kantian) autonomy and learning to live a more complex political life with its republican ideals of civil society.
But alongside his commitment to be a part of the new national project, his failure to match its sentiments was also apparent. Mamardashvili refused to identify as an activist and saw himself instead thriving in solitude and wishing to contribute from more solitary, peaceful places.
“Philosophy rules out political noise; it needs solitude and silence – that’s the necessity that dictates the bounds of my obligation and service,” he’d say. “The philosophy needs to remain in the state of confrontation with itself and constant renewal.”
Death and survival
Mamardashvili succumbed to a heart attack in 1990 at the age of 60. His texts have mainly survived through his essays and interviews, where Georgians have never stopped searching for their preferred truths. The controversy lives. In a foreword to one of his recently published essay collections, a translator assures, somewhat desperately, that in the texts, a reader finds Mamardashvili’s “Georgian, deeply Georgian stance,” yet goes on to admit that some of his views may seem “paradoxical” and even “unacceptable.”
But as any good philosopher would do, Mamardashvili left more questions than answers.
Indeed, his faith in “constant renewal” and confrontation can mean that the rationalist thought that once inspired him as fresh may one day look outdated to some. Yet his passion for thinking and love of complexities might be as relevant today as ever.
Today, his commitment to seeking the truth might be more important than the truths themselves. More than three decades after his passing, Georgian political noise did not subside. The noise-to-signal ratio keeps deteriorating, as the elites keep producing noise to retain power, and leaving the listeners exhausted and drained. Vibrant activism is still here, securing victory after victory in its battle against authoritarian tendencies – but harboring silent fears that someday, the effort won’t be enough.
So, where do we retreat when we feel the need to re-think? Where do we go when we realize that slogans on banners cannot replace ideas? Does that “solitude” that should encourage philosophical thinking still exist, or has our chosen way of life closed all such spaces? Did we fill all those spaces with the noise of television, social media reels that offer distraction, or, in the best case, simple truths, and other well-tested ways to hide from ourselves?
Or is the soul of the departed philosopher still roaming the streets of Tbilisi, keeping the space alive, waiting for lonely passers-by to engage in deep and meaningful conversations?