Monday, November 01, 2004

From the Mail: De Brevitate Vitae

Yesterday, I described two attitudes toward impermanence. For some people this life is as real as it is ever going to get, and so the proper response to the brevity of life is to make the most of each moment. For others -- and among these others are the greatest sages and philosophers of all time in both the East and the West -- the brevity of this life is an index of its unreality and unsatisfactoriness, an index that points to the possibility of some sort of salvation or liberation.

Dennis Mangan writes (by e-mail):

As usual, a very good post. From my point of view, I see the problem as: what if there is no salvation? Then all one's time will presumably have been wasted. The person who wants to "grab the gusto" I do think very mistaken, if only because the "gusto" consists of such shallow pleasures.

BV: The attitude of the person I called the worldling need not be crassly hedonistic. Such a person might also cultivate the higher pleasures of the intellect as well as the pleasures of family and friendship -- not to mention the pleasures of blogging. The attitude of the worldling is something like the following. This life is the only life. It is as real as it gets. Any attempt to transcend it via mysticism or religion is escapist. The shortness of life should motivate us to make the most of each moment. For some this might involve slowing down 'to smell the flowers.' For others, speeding up to cram more experiences into the time remaining.

Your problem is that if there is no salvation, then one who has spent his time "working it out with diligence" will have wasted his time. It is a very real problem. Did the talented Thomas Merton throw his life away by entering the Trappist monastery at Gethsemane, Kentucky? (There is a place in his Journals where he himself raises this question.) And what about the brilliant Edith Stein, star pupil of Edmund Husserl, who abandoned her professional career and became a Carmelite nun? Did these people and millions more waste their lives on illusions?

Simone Weil's answer to your question is paraphrasable as follows. If I live a worldly life, I live in pursuit of illusions, and so exclude myself from the truth. If I live an unworldly life, renouncing illusory goods, then I live in the truth, even if God and the soul are both unreal. Thus I cannot lose: If I opt for the unworldly life, and God and the soul do not exist, then I win, for I have lived in the truth. A fortiori, I also win if God and the soul do exist. So I cannot fail to win by choosing the unworldly life. On the other hand, I cannot fail to lose by choosing the worldly life. For whether or not God and the soul exist, the worldly live in illusion. They chase after phantom goods that cannot last and cannot ultimately satisfy while mistakenly thinking that they do last and can ultimately satisfy.

The Weil paraphrase is an excerpt from my article,
Weil's Wager, an article in which I go on to criticize Weil. The gist of my criticism is that any denigration of this life in respect of reality or value must presuppose an absolute standard of reality and value such that the denigration in question is justified only if that standard exists. For Weil, this life is illusory whether or not God and the soul exist, whereas for me, the life is illusory only if God (or some comparable absolute) and the soul exist.

Still, I share with Weil a perception of the ultimate nullity of this life when it is considered in and by itself. I take this perception as pointing to the possibility of salvation in some form or other. Therefore, it strikes me as all-important to explore this possibility. Thus meditating and philosophizing rather than 'partying' are my responses to the brevity of life. (Last night my wife went alone to a Halloween party where she had to explain where her husband was and why he is not into 'partying.')

Now suppose it all turns out to be an illusion in the end. One day I die and become nothing so that my life was spent barking up the wrong tree, metaphysically speaking. What have I lost? Some empty pleasures and meaningless worldly blandishments? The accolades of worthless people? They are of no real value in any case. What I have gained is a meaningful life at least as long as I am alive.

Let me put it another way. Suppose I knew with certainty that I am just a complex physical system slated for utter annihilation in a few years. Then I would put my affairs in order, walk out into the desert, and blow my brains out. For if that is all we are, then life is "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Why put up with it? Why be made a fool of?

Furthermore, I would say that anyone who doesn't see it this way, anyone who thinks that life is worth living even if we are nothing but dust in the wind, is living in illusion. People like that haven't really faced up to their mortality in a wholly physical world. They are caught up in some life-enhancing illusion or other. It might be the illusion of progeny. They think that their progeny will give their life meaning which of course it won't -- though I won't argue the point now. Or they are Marxists or some other kind of 'progressive' who looks to a brighter future for humanity. That is pure illusion in my humble opinion. It is a form of ersatz religion in which there is no agent capable of bringing about the hoped-for state of affairs. At least with real religion you have an omnipotent being who could usher in the paradise envisaged. But even if the progressive illusion weren't an illusion it could not possibly redeem the lives of the billions of past individuals who have lived miserable lives.

I suppose it all comes down to whether or you not you share my perception of the ultimate nullity of this life with respect to reality and value when it is considered in and by itself.

But I went through a period of my life when I was trying to work out my salvation, if that is not too grand a phrase for what I was doing, but I could not find anything on the other end of it.

BV: Nothing at all? No hints, no glimpses, no intimations of a metaphysical Elsewhere?

I felt that the salvation was illusory, but of course I may be mistaken. But I do believe that a fundamental tenet of Buddhism says that some will never attain salvation no matter how hard they try, in this life. Hence, the doctrine of metempsychosis, which gives you another shot at it.
I came to the conclusion that, at least for me, whatever satisfactions were to be had, and they seem very few at times, were to be had in this world and this life. I'm very willing to change my mind on this topic, and if I had a mystical vision of God tomorrow I would.

BV: If you have had no religious or mystical experiences of any kind ever, then it would be reasonable for you to dismiss the salvation quest as escapist buncombe. But if you had no experiences whatsoever, then why did you embark on that quest in the first place?

You may be asking for too much too soon. An element of faith enters into it. Not blind faith, however, since it is guided by reason and religious/mystical experiences. It may be that seeing through a glass darkly is not good enough for you.

In any case, we should continue this discussion.