Only one thing matters now

I watched the re-run of game 1 of the NBA finals yesterday.   There were no other sporting events on television and anything that requires you actually to hear what is being said was out of the question:  our ancient and thunderously loud treadmill, which we inherited from the previous owners of the house, makes it impossible.  Still, I was mildly pleased to discover that the NBA finals have begun, and even that our home-town team is involved.  (I’ve been a bit under a rock lately.)

From what I could hear of the commentary, the announcers seemed enormously impressed with Kobe Bryant’s focus.  This article in today’s Boston Herald fills in some of the background.  Apparently Chris Rock was sitting very close to Bryant on the sidelines, heckling him.  I don’t know Chris Rock that well, but my sense is that he is very funny, with a distinctive voice, and that if he was intent on getting your attention by heckling you, while sitting only a couple of feet away, it wouldn’t be too hard.  Bryant reports not even having known he was there.  And from the way he played once he got back on the court – extraordinarily well – that’s not too difficult to believe.

By the time the game was over my several minutes on the treadmill were complete as well, so I did get a chance to listen to the brief interview with Kobe after the game.  The reporter asked him how he was able to maintain such focus, and his answer was striking to me.  “Only one thing matters now,” he said.  (Or something to that effect.)

I suppose it is true that it is better to have one thing that matters than no things.  Bryant has meaningful differences in his life, and so he is not like Walter or Prufrock or Vladimir and Estragon.  And the fact that only one thing matters probably makes him a valuable asset to the team and to its goal of winning a championship.  This is the kind of focus and commitment that a coach dreams of from his players.

But I have known people for whom only one thing matters, and it’s not obvious that this is what one should be aiming for.

In the book we talk about the kind of medieval nihilism one finds in Dante when, by the end of the Paradiso the only thing that matters is the bliss of contemplating god.  We call this a kind of nihilism because it makes it impossible to find meaningful differences on earth:  they all pale to triviality by comparison with the hyper importance of the supra-mundane.  This is not like Kobe’s case, since Dante’s bliss takes him out of the world while Kobe’s puts him into it.  But still, part of the point of the book is to contrast Homeric polytheism – which allows for a plurality of irreconcilable goods – with the kind of monotheism that requires a rank ordering of them all.  Isn’t Kobe’s kind of excellence a challenge to that kind of pluralism?  Or is Kobe living in his world of meaningful differences the way Homer’s Helen was in hers?  Remember that Helen was grabbed by the overwhelming importance of Aphrodite’s erotic world, with Paris at its center, and she lived in that world for while.  Nevertheless, the way she lived in that world left her open to the possibility that later some irreconcilable world – like the domestic world in which she finds happiness with Menelaus – will order her existence.  Is Kobe’s focus compatible with that kind of transition?

Maybe the point is that even he can’t tell from inside the world he now inhabits.

About Sean D. Kelly

Sean Dorrance Kelly is the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also Faculty Dean at Dunster House, one of the twelve undergraduate Houses at Harvard. He served for six years as chair of Harvard's Department of Philosophy. Kelly earned an Sc.B. in Mathematics and Computer Science and an M.S. in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Brown University in 1989. After three years as a Ph.D. student in Logic and Methodology of Science, he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1998. Before arriving at Harvard in 2006, Kelly taught at Stanford and Princeton, and he was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Sean Kelly's work focuses on various aspects of the philosophical, phenomenological, and cognitive neuroscientific nature of human experience. He is a world authority on 20th century European Philosophy, specializing in the work of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He has also done influential work in philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception. Kelly has published articles in numerous journals and anthologies and he has received fellowships or awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, the NSF and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, among others. Fun fact: He appeared on The Colbert Show in 2011 to talk about All Things Shining. Sean Kelly lives at Dunster House with his wife, the Harvard Philosopher Cheryl Kelly Chen, and their two boys, Benjamin and Nathaniel.
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13 Responses to Only one thing matters now

  1. Jermaine says:

    Kobe’s statement that “Only one thing matters now” does seem to suggest that he is cognizant of other goods besides the excellence of playing basketball. Otherwise, how could he delimit this “one thing” (i.e., this good as one among others) and the time he devotes to it, in the “now” (i.e., the NBA finals)?

    Perhaps, in pursuit of winning the championships, rather than rank ordering the good of playing basketball, he merely privileges it, where ‘privileging’ means provisionally subsuming all other goods to this one highest good. He can become Helen-like and open to other irreconcilable worlds once the season is over.

  2. Sean D. Kelly says:

    Thanks for that, Jermaine. I struggled with the “now” too. In fact, I originally left it out of the title and then thought that I remembered it at the end of his sentence and put it in. But as you point out, everything turns on whether it’s there or not. If only one thing matters *now*, then that leaves open the possibility that at some other time other things matter, as you suggest. If only one thing matters *ever* (boy, I really have to figure out how to use italics), then that does seem to be incompatible with a multiplicity of goods.

    I say it “seems” to be incompatible because Kierkegaard apparently has an alternative. For him an unconditional commitment is given in a moment of “infinity in time”. At that moment everything – from the past to the future – gets its meaning in terms of the unconditional commitment. The moment that Kierkegaard falls in love with Regina, for example, is the moment in which everything from his past looks like it was leading up to this event and everything in his future looks like it follows from it and everything now gets its meaning in terms of it. So it looks like there is one incommensurate good – Regina – in terms of which all the others get their worth. But in fact, Kierkegaard thinks, there could be a later moment when everything is totally reordered again. Another moment of infinity in time. Presumably it won’t look, from within this world, as if everything later could get a different meaning. But as a matter of fact that’s the way the world is.

    Once you put the “now” in Kobe’s statement it’s not like that. If you say that only one thing matters now, and that means that although basketball is now the highest good I can now see that later some other good may trump it, then the sense in which basketball is the highest good is diminished. It’s not the *only* thing that matters, it’s just the thing that has the highest ranking. And the “now” suggests that that’s the way it seems to Kobe, as well. If that’s the way to hear it, then there’s a tension between the “only” and the “now”. To the extent that it seems like *now* this is the only thing that matters, then it doesn’t now seem like this is the *only* thing that matters.

    Or at least that’s the worry.

  3. Jermaine says:

    I struggle with this notion of a force, such as Regina, from which ‘everything’ gets its meaning in terms of the unconditional commitment. Everything? The Kierkegaardian moment of infinity seems to be an event which sparks a self-narrative reconstruction that, as a narrative, necessarily leaves out many other elements making up his world.

    Now that he’s in the finals, Kobe can tell himself that experiences/conditions of his past have lead up to his playing championship basketball. But he can take an alternate view where, sitting at a restaurant with his wife, over their dinner he explains that their ‘making it throughout the years’ was due to maintaining love as the highest good in their shared lives.

    I guess what I’m saying is that maybe you don’t need this crucial (special?) moment; that in ordinary life you can switch back and forth between worlds which have their own respective highest good. Call it compartmentalization, which precludes any tension between the ‘now’ and ‘only’.

  4. Standing Eagle says:

    Good heavens! (some pun intended). This is my first visit to the blog since it got actually underway, and I find to my surprise that you are writing about something about which I know something. I know something about athletics, of course, although my college team was 4-13-1 over three years, but the thing I actually know something about is Dante.

    Also Kierkegaard — but more Climacus than the lovestruck “knight of faith” persona.

    So listen. You’ve got Dante all wrong. Even in Paradiso 33, that most God-centered moment of all, he is still working incredibly hard NOT to collapse his entire world into the one vision. To maintain the reality of plural human experience — idiosyncratic, fleeting, imperfect — in the face of an eternal order is in fact the ENTIRE project of the Comedy. This is why — for example — the Paradiso is divided into a hierarchy of virtue, even though in ‘truth’ (but what is truth if not what the recipient of direct revelation receives?) there are no such invidious distinctions among the saved. This is why Dante’s vision at the end is equated with an apprehension of the purest impossible paradox, the squaring of the circle. And this is why in the last couple tercets, at the heart of the ultimate vision of absolute divinity, Dante sees not something abstract and pure but exactly the opposite: “nostre effige,” OUR likeness. Or, emphasized the other way, a FAKE human face, God copying humanity rather than the other way around.

    I could go on all day. Many people misread Dante to this effect, in part because they skim too much of the poem and in part because they lump him in with systematic theologians through the ages, forgetting that he was theologus-POETA. He cared very deeply about people, politics, the stuff of life, and his heartbreak at being exiled from the hurlyburly of Florentine civic life is one of the three or four key foundations of the Comedy. To imagine that this heartbreak makes him care LESS about that civic world, or flee into a world of religious fantasy, is to misunderstand what real heartbreak is all about.

    Can you tell I’m a Cavs fan? It’s a heartbreak year here in Cleveland.

    I may need to buy this book, but it looks I’m going to have some very serious problems with the Dante section, and I’m confident he deserves better. Christianity does wonderful and complex things with monotheism, and I’m surprised a reader of Kierkegaard is missing them in this way.

    Go Celtics!

    Standing Eagle

  5. Standing Eagle says:

    Incidentally, Chris Rock vs. Francesca da Rimini? No contest. In fact, I’ll take la Pia over Chris Rock, but then I’m a romantic…

  6. Thanks to both Standing Eagle and Jermaine for interesting comments. It’s obvious that SE in particular has a gripe with our view of Dante, and that Jermaine is concerned about Kierkegaard. Without the details from either side, though, it’s hard to know how to proceed. Would either of you be interested in looking at a more detailed excerpt? Happy to send it along. More details about our situation in the next post.


  7. Standing Eagle says:

    “by the end of the Paradiso the only thing that matters is the bliss of contemplating god”

    I thought I disagreed with this pretty specifically and with some precise detail from a text that ought to be relevant: namely, the end of the Paradiso! Was the citation from the sixth-to-last line not late enough? How about the last line, then, which refers to God as the source of the love “that moves the sun and other stars.” Again, as he does time and time again, Dante swerves from the focus monotheism might seem to require to celestial bodies of a lower order (and it might be worth reminding oneself of which heavens, and which cantos, house the sun and other stars — suffice it to say, in this last line we are not focused on the Primum Mobile itself).

    Please do send along some excerpt if you have the chance. And maybe here on the blog you could give some textual citation, rather than a general impression of askesis, to back up your claim of Dante’s ultimate unworldliness. I believe I can persuade you that you’re wrong to label him such.

    Throwdown initiated —

    Standing Eagle

  8. Sean D. Kelly says:

    SE and Jermaine,

    We’ll try to send along some excerpts soon. It may be that the passages on Dante from the book itself are not sufficient, though we have lots and lots of details in other forms. Perhaps those will be grist for the mill as well.

    To SE in particular: Your reference to the face of God is an important bit for our interpretation, and we talk about it in the book. But we don’t read it as a “fake” God. Instead, we read it as Dante’s inability to take seriously God as incarnate. The fact that he says “nostre effige” seems completely indeterminate: it’s either that God has our likeness, as you claim, or that the face like ours is also like God’s, as would be more natural. But in any case one thing is sure: in the last line of the poem Dante as an individual, and all he cared about on earth, is wiped out by the “source that moves the sun and the other stars”. That is why, a canto or two earlier (we are doing this from memory) he talks about the earth as the “threshing floor” of the universe, and why he finally ceases to be attracted by the physical beauty of Beatrice’s body.

    We’ll send passages from the book and supporting notes soon if you write again with your e-mail.

    Sean and Bert

  9. Standing Eagle says:


    I don’t understand — literally can’t parse — your statement “the face like ours may also be like God’s.” It’s clearly God’s face, within the circling of the Divine and in its very color.

    Also, I think it’s worth noting that the word “me” appears all over this critical passage.

    “mi parve pinta” — it seemed to me painted — “de la nostra effige:
    “per che ‘l mio viso” -so that my sight — “in lei tutto era messo” — was all absorbed in it.

    And at the end, where you say Dante is swallowed up, what he says is quite different:

    “MY will and MY desire, like wheels revolving with an equal motion (scholars dispute whether equal with each other or equal with God’s love), were turning with the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

    At the end of the perfection of his intellect, the pilgrim here has his OWN faculties brought into sync with what God would want. It’s analogous to Virgil conferring on him his graduation from Virgil’s mentorship at the end of Purgatorio (29?): “I crown and miter you over yourself.” The INDIVIDUAL simply never disappears from Dante, in my opinion. But I’m glad that you’re bringing some resistance, and we can discuss your evidence.
    I’d gladly e-mail you my e-mail address but I don’t see your address on the page here. As it happens I’ll be in Tuscany next week at a seminar with Robert Hollander, so this is a great warm-up.


    PS. It’s a little disturbing that you misquote the last line to say “source” instead of “love” — it’s “amor” in Italian, not ambiguous. “Source” would indeed be more nihilistic, since love is a two-way street.

  10. Standing Eagle says:

    Also by the way: I happen to believe that Dante’s bodily intervenor is, heterodoxically, not Jesus but Beatrice. This is an extreme version of an answer to your claim that Dante doesn’t take God seriously as incarnate. I won’t insist on it.

    But I do insist that you explain why you think Beatrice ceases to be beautiful. The opposite is the case: she gets more beautiful as they go higher. You’re right that when they first meet she is very harsh to him, basically scourging out of him all the lingering lustful “antica fiamma,” but her loveliness never ceases to be his reference point throughout the Paradiso.

  11. Standing Eagle says:

    Sorry for the serial posts.
    If “all Dante cares about on Earth” is supposedly wiped out at the end of the Comedy, you’re going to have some splaining to do w/r/t Beatrice’s last spoken words. They’re an invective against Boniface, who she calls a jackass just before retiring. It’s wildly inappropriate for heaven and can only be a signal that earthly concerns DO STILL MATTER even to the saved. St Peter has a very similar rant in Canto 28.

    The threshing-floor quote refers to the folly of Ulysses’ mad travel, which as one sees in Inferno is an emblem of pridefully overweening human curiosity. It serves your purpose but is all the way back in Canto 27, and *immediately* after mentioning it he turns back to Beatrice’s beauty.

    I notice that Hollander doesn’t translate ‘aiuola’ as threshing-floor; I urge you to get his translation and use it instead of whatever you’re using. But that’s as you please.


  12. heuristicaxiom says:

    In this interesting playoff (for what it’s worth), I grant “game” and “final point” to Standing Eagle–even though he clearly revels in the perquisites of his specialist stance. I can only assume the discussion lost impetus or possibly skidded off-blog.

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