Writers concentrate all their craft into the shaping of a first sentence. They want it to be masterfully crafted, and they want it to grab your attention. Here’s the first sentence from one of the books I happen to have on my shelves:
We knowers are unknown to ourselves, and for a good reason: how can we ever hope to find what we have never looked for?
This sentence links together two abstract ideas, both of which are controversial: we don’t know ourselves, and we’ve never tried to understand ourselves. The writer begins with the second person plural, present tense – we are – then links the two big thoughts together in the form of a question. We presume that the author is trying to engage his readers in a dialogue. What common ground do we as potential readers share with the writer, so that we might want to accept his invitation to participate in a verbal exchange with a dead white male (for the writer is all three)?
We are, asserts the author, knowers. The author seems to be addressing a pretty broad potential audience, since everybody knows things. Still, how often do I think of myself as a “knower”? It’s a strange noun, though maybe it’s fairly common in German (for this sentence was originally written in German). I have knowledge, but the writer is asking me to think of myself as a knower. He’s directing my attention away from the world, from what I know, and toward myself. And I’m to think of myself not as a knowledgeable person, nor even as a learner, but as someone who actively knows, as one of those honey gatherers of the mind that he describes three sentences later. It’s a little disconcerting, this beginning
We knowers are unknown, says the writer. It’s a paradox: we know, but we ourselves are not known. Isn’t that part of the fun of being a knower? It’s like being a spy, keeping the subject of investigation under covert surveillance. By remaining in the shadows, we’re able to exert a kind of power over the world. But the author goes on: We knowers are unknown to ourselves. It’s a double paradox: we lay claim to being knowers, but something is eluding our scrutiny, something very important and close to us: ourselves. How can we hope to find what we have never looked for, the author asks us. Is that true? I tend to believe that we already spend inordinate amounts of time trying to understand who we really are, to the point where we barely bother to know about anything other than ourselves. Maybe this first sentence was generally true at the time it was written (for it was written over a hundred years ago), but now? Maybe the book is obsolete.
But now I’m reminded of another first sentence – not first sequentially in the book where it appears, but first in a historical sense: I think, therefore I am. Without question our writer was familiar with this older and more famous sentence (for our writer was a philosopher, or at least that’s how we think of him today). The grand edifice of modern Western philosophy was built on Descartes’ assertion of self-awareness. Was our writer blatantly claiming, right in the very first sentence, that the foundation stone is set in sand? Also, he seems deliberately to contrast Descartes’ thinking with another mental activity: knowing. This is probably an important distinction, but since I’m not a professional philosopher maybe the rest of the book isn’t really meant for the likes of me. But the writer begins with “we knowers,” not “we philosophers,” which encourages me: he’s proposing to take the dialogue outside the walls of the academy into the world at large. As I move on to the next sentence, I’m expecting neither a modern self-help book nor an impenetrable and arcane work of scholarship, but the ideas of someone who wants to engage me simply as a fellow-knower.
The book is The Genealogy of Morals; the writer, Friedrich Nietzsche.
We believe that we can know morality by discovering it; Nietzsche spends the greater part of his book spinning out alternative versions of how the human race created morality. For Nietzsche, knowing isn’t just a matter of gathering honey. Knowing too is an act of creating. If we want to know ourselves as creators, where do we look? Can we gather this self-knowledge and store it up for ourselves, or do we also have to create what we know about ourselves?
Start picking books off the shelves and reading the first sentences. Not just philosophy books, but all kinds of books – also short stories, plays, screenplays… Post, comment, file under FIRST LINES.