If Rob Riemen were a writer with a different voice, who punctuated his ideas with footnotes and framed his anecdotes with jargon, his elegant volume,If Rob Riemen were a writer with a different voice, who punctuated his ideas with footnotes and framed his anecdotes with jargon, his elegant volume, “Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal,” might be on heavy rotation in philosophy courses worldwide. But Riemen is a humanist with a literary impulse who takes great pleasure in the creative act. Writing, as he says, in “the small hours of the night” when he can put his work at the Nexus Institute, the independent organization he runs in The Netherlands, to one side and explore the terrain of his own mind, Riemen has produced a text that eschews the traditional definition of critical analysis; it is neither an extended philosophical essay, nor a work of academic criticism. For this reason it is hard to decide whether to shelve it in one’s personal library beside Anthony Kenny’s “A Brief History of Western Philosophy,” or if it instead belongs next to Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” Yet it is this protean nature that makes “Nobility of Spirit” as much a pleasure to read as Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha,” or Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet.” Riemen understands that in enjoyable reading there is opportunity for learning.
A passionate student of the German writer Thomas Mann, Riemen expresses his ideas in stories, animating conversations between great thinkers of the past. He breathes life into the meditative walks of Friedrich Nietzsche, and recounts Socrates’ trial in Athens, giving us a ringside seat for one of Western philosophy’s most crucial speeches. By doing so, he encourages contemporary readers to reconnect with some of history’s most elegant concepts: Beauty, Truth, Goodness, the importance of language. These concepts were once impartial moral guideposts, but today they are subjective measures whose definitions often rely upon individual opinion for their import. Riemen suggests that there is still room for certainty, that there are unassailable truths, and that morality and human decency have a crucial role to play in contemporary culture:
“No, for the sake of human dignity the free individual is not allowed to ignore universal, timeless values. Intellectuals in particular should resist this kind of nihilism. Not everything is allowed. Human freedom is in essence relative; it is subordinate to the immortal and never completely attainable ideal of human dignity. Furthermore, absolute freedom obliterates justice. There are transcendental absolute values that have priority and are obligatory for everyone.” –“Nobility of Spirit,” page 70
Rob Riemen sees his life “as a kind of mission to restore the meaning of certain words.” When one closes the covers of “Nobility of Spirit” for the last time, one does so with the sense that communication itself is at the very heart of being human, and that in the face of incredible challenge one has the resources to persevere.