Why Arisbe?

Then Diomed killed Axylus, son of Teuthranus, a rich man who lived in the strong city of Arisbe and was beloved by all men; for he had a house by the roadside, and entertained all who passed; howbeit not one of his guests stood before him to save his life, and Diomed killed both him and his squire, Calesius, who was then his charioteer — so the pair passed beneath the earth. — Iliad VI, 12-19

In the city of Milford, at the Delaware Water Gap, by the side of the road to Port Jervis (the end of the railroad line to New York), stands an old stone house used by the National Park Service. A sign near the highway, of the sort marking lesser battlefields of the Revolution, identifies it as Arisbe, the last home of Charles Sanders Peirce, and of his mysterious wife Juliette.

The name Arisbe was perhaps suggested by the justly forgotten sentimental poet of "The House by the Side of the Road," who sang that Axylus "lived in a house by the side of the road and was a friend to man." By the 1890s America's greatest philosopher had no higher ambition. Hounded out of his government job and his academic appointment, Charles Peirce was rich only in his knowledge and in his love for his ailing wife. Did Peirce ever turn back to Homer and reflect that of all who feasted of the bounty of Axylus, none stood up to save his life? Malnutrition played its part in the martyrdom of America's greatest thinker, as the deathbed photograph makes painfully clear.

I have used the word martyrdom for reasons I must now explain. Martyr is Greek for witness. To what or to Whom does Peirce at Arisbe bear witness? We know much less than we should like to about the end of his career as a scientist and teacher — only the orignis of his second wife are more obscure. But there is a passage in The Philosophy of Loyalty which I have lived with for many years with a growing conviction that there is only one man Josiah Royce can be describing so movingly. (If any Royce scholar has another candidate than Peirce in mind, please let me know!)

There was a friend of my own youth whom I have not seen for years, who once faced the choice between a scholarly career that he loved, on the one hand, and a call of honor on the other, — who could have lived out that career with worldly success if he had only been willing to conspire with his chief to deceive the public about a matter of fact, but who unhesitatingly was loyal to loyalty, who spoke the truth, who refused to conspire, and who, because his chief was a plausible and powerful man, thus deliberately wrecked his own worldly chances once for all, and retired into a misunderstood obscurity in order that his fellow-men might henceforth be helped to respect the truth better. Now, the worldly career which that friend thus sacrificed for the sake of his loyalty is far from mine; the causes that he has since loyally served have not of late brought him near to me in worldly doings. I am not sure that he should ever have kept our interests in close touch with one another even if we had lived side by side. For he was and is a highly specialized type of man, austere, and a little disposed, like many scholars, to a life apart. For the rest, I have never myself been put in such a place as his was when he chose to make his sacrifice, and have never had his great choice set before me. Nor has the world rewarded him at all fairly for his fidelity. He is, then, as this world goes, not now near to me, and not a widely influential man. Yet I owe him a great debt. He showed me, by the example of his free sacrifice, a good in loyalty which I might otherwise have been too blind to see. He is a man who does not love flattery. It would be useless for me now to offer to him either words of praise or words of comfort. He made his choice with a single heart and a clear head, and he has always declined to be praised. But it will take a long time, in some other world, should I meet him in such a realm, to tell him how much I owe to his example, how much he inspired me, or how many of his fellows he had indirectly helped to their own loyalty. For I believe that a good many others besides myself indirectly owe far more to him than he knows, or than they know. I believe that certain standards of loyalty and of scientific truthfulness in this country are to-day higher than they were because of the self-surrendering act of that one devoted scholar. — J. Royce, The Philosophy of Loyalty, Lecture III, Section VI, Paragraph 11.

This, then, is Peirce at Arisbe, the scholar, the man of science, loyal to the truth. Whatever the faults of his youth and middle age, the name Arisbe recalls a Peirce who sets a high standard of loyalty indeed. But martyrdom? Certainly Peirce worked tirelessly and creatively with no real hope of an audience in his lifetime, in terrible pain and worse anxiety for his wife. But where is the specifically religious dimension the term martyrdom connotes?

Charles Peirce was far from an orthodox Christian as we generally understand the term. Raised Unitarian in the circle of Emerson, he became an Episcopalian on the occasion of his first marriage, but could not attend services with a good conscience, feeling his intellectual integrity compromised. His alienation from historical Christianity troubled him greatly until one Sunday morning in 1892 he suddenly felt permitted, invited, commanded, and indeed compelled to return to Holy Communion. Not that he suddenly became orthodox in his thinking, but orthodoxy suddenly didn't matter. Later that day Peirce wrote a letter to the pastor of St. Thomas's on Fifth Avenue in New York, where this occurred. Kenneth Ketner sent a copy to Walker Percy, and it was recently published in their correspondence. In this remarkable letter, Peirce wrote that

(T)hat which seemed to call me today seemed to promise that I should bear a cross like death for the Master's sake, and he would give me the strength to bear it. I am sure that will happen. My part is to wait. I have never before been mystical; but now I am. — A Thief of Peirce, p.137.

Many admirers of Peirce will no doubt be astonished and bemused by these words, but surely no more than he himself by the experience they describe: "I have never before been mystical; but now I am." Peirce never became a mystic in the Randian sense of submitting his mind to external authority; his religious experience made him more of a freethinker than ever. But he was now convinced that in following the truth wherever it led, without looking back to see if anyone was following him, he was somehow at one with the Founder of Christianity, and with the divine source of creativity and love he posited as the cause of Evolution.

Axylus and Calesius of the strong city of Arisbe passed beneath the earth, slain by Diomed. The ashes of Charles Sanders Peirce reposed in an urn on the mantlepiece of his Arisbe livingroom: I do not know what has become of them; perhaps nobody knows. His manuscripts somehow survived, many of the most important have been published in one form or another, and a critical edition is at last begun. On the eve of a new century, Charles Peirce stands upon the earth as an icon of integrity to all who would study, teach, or practice philosophy, whether inside or outside the sacred Grove of Academe. The place where they meet is Arisbe.

—Frank Palmer Purcell

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License