Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Purpose of Life

What is the purpose of our existence? One possible answer given by the "perennial philosophy:" our true identity lies in Oneness with the Divine, that we have fallen from this Oneness into the multiplicity of matter and that the goal is ultimate reunion with God. But then there is Hegel who warns that this Mysticism is merely “the night in which all cows are black,” that what we really need is not absorption in the One but reconciliation to the One through the Many. The Absolute is the “identity of identity and non-identity” which means that it is essentially expressed in our actual human lives, and not merely present in some other realm “above” or “beyond” human life.

Perhaps it is a question of perspective, of stages. You first wake up and realize the illusion of separate things, separate world, and separate ego. You renounce the world and your ego and seek some higher truth or Self that lies behind it. But then you come to see that this seeking itself presumes some kind of absolute separation between you and God, when in reality you are already one with Him, in your lived condition here and now. Thus there is no need to seek for a higher world, only an acceptance of the world as it actually is. The problem is that when one begins to reflect, when one comes off one’s Zen-like cloud, it is very hard to accept the world as it is. And this leads us to the problem of suffering, the problem of evil.

The traditional problem is how to reconcile evil with the existence of a loving, omnipotent God. If he is all-loving he would want to end evil, and if he is all-powerful he would be able to end evil, so if evil exists he must be either not-all-loving or not-all-powerful. But the problem of evil can be put in existential terms: given the reality of evil in the world, how can we unconditionally affirm the world? This is the way Dostoevsky presents evil through the mouthpiece of Ivan in Brothers Karamazov: Ivan can intellectually acknowledge that at some future state all the present evil will be swallowed up in some greater good, and so there may be an answer to the traditional problem. However, he cannot accept a world where such present evil is just a means to a greater end. What about the suffering of the seven-year old who was raped, sodomized, had gasoline poured all over her, then was lit on fire by a match and burned alive? Do we really want to affirm a world where such a thing can happen? Is it really possible to redeem such evils or justify them by saying they will “teach us a lesson” or that we can rest assured that the little child is “smiling now in heaven?”

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

My Me is My God

“It takes a great man not to allow any of his time to be frittered away,” Seneca says. The stoics are great to read, you have a sense that they are in touch with themselves if anyone is, that all of life has been figured out and that rationality and virtue will lead us to the Promised Land. But what is it to fritter away one’s time? Watching television and playing video games, that surely counts. Reading the newspaper, chatting with friends on the cell phone, going to parties, doing drugs, dancing the night away only to collapse onto your bed in a stupor and wake up the next evening, that probably counts too. Contemplating the meaning of life, working on a poem that likely no one will ever either read or understand, going for a run so you can remain healthy and achieve peace of mind, that supposedly does not count. But it does seem that at the end of the day you collapse on the same bed. Unless you believe that our actions have consequences after we die, we shall all end up in the same place: a blink of an eye in the vast infinity of the machinery of the cosmos and it will be over, as quickly as it began. A work of art redeems time. Can this be true for other experiences as well? A truly intense moment which attains an eternality not upset by the passage of time, which we know to be either relative or unreal altogether?

The unexamined life is not worth living, every philosopher must preach that or there would be no basis for one’s profession. But against that stands the formidable where ignorance is bliss ’tis folly to be wise. Perhaps we simply inflict unnecessary pain upon ourselves when we demand the love of wisdom, and we would be happier just accepting on faith what our elders, church or government has taught us. Tolstoy clearly believed that: the religion of the common man was the truth, not the intellectualism of the educated elite. The problem is that once you begin to consider which of these two alternatives is the better you are already lost to the life of the mind. Kind of like the declaration that there is no truth: the very activity of thinking betrays itself.

Betraying oneself: this reminds me of how untrue we are, both to ourselves and to others. As the story goes Confucius searched the world over for an honest man and found only himself, and Socrates was wise only because he admitted he knew nothing. One of my most profound epiphanies occurred when I was falsely accused of a crime I did not commit—of all things, eating someone else’s banana from the communal pantry. I blamed this false accuser, I denounced him from atop the outdoor track’s rickety grandstand that lonely starry night many moons ago. But then the truth descended upon me: that I was no better than him, that I too have often lied out of fear or petty resentment. Then the world caved in on itself, my soul expanded and I became the universe and I saw God in every little thing. Realizing that I was nothing I became everything, and becoming everything I saw that God and I were one. My me is my God and I can know no other, St. Catherine says. She too realized this mystical insight, no doubt as a result of a likewise persecution. It is a sad truth that we learn only when we suffer. Perhaps that is the raison d’etre of suffering.

If one could judge the quality of one’s life by the quantity of one’s epiphanies, I would be living an excellent life and there would be no cause for questioning anything. But alas, the insights I have are fleeting moments and then I am thrust back into frustration, desire, and regret. I have realized that there is no such thing as a final enlightenment, for when I think I have a grasp of the whole, I later realize it was merely another rung on the ladder. Even when I feel closest to someone a moment later I can feel a mile away. In the end one realizes that a deep all-abiding loneliness lies at the heart of each one of us. It is everywhere around us and within us, and we spend our entire lives running away from it. We desire wholeness but our very desire to become something more than we are creates an alienation between that which we are and that which we ought to be. Freud wrote a lot about this situation; he called art, religion, and philosophy “palliative measures” we take in order to bridge this insufferable gap. But ultimately he concluded on a pessimistic note: there is no way out, no exit as Sartre would say. We are condemned to our hell as a result of our psychologies which are in turn dependent on our biologies. And we know that biology is ultimately derived from physics. But what is physics derived from? If from nothing, our life is “a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” And if from God we can then ask why such a heavenly being would want to create such a hell for us.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Nature Hides Itself

My life has been an attempt to understand how the following two sayings of Hermann Hesse can both be true without contradiction:

The hardest road to follow is the one that leads to oneself

It is good to know that within us is someone who knows everything.

The first saying indicates how arduous the road to self-discovery is: we can turn our eye to the outside world with little problem but when we turn inward we find nothing but false ideals and projections. The second saying encourages us by maintaining that there is indeed a True Self that lies behind the appearances, one who initiates the entire process and will be revealed at its end. This is the paradox that is my life: I am the self that sees through a glass darkly, but also the self that sees face to face. But perhaps I am blinded to the truth that these selves are actually one and the same?

I read some Thoreau the other day and recalled the times I used to go to the woods in order to “front the essential facts of life.” I remember my attempt to follow in Thoreau’s wake when I was in college; I was determined to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” Many sufferings later I now wonder whether this was a juvenile attempt to escape from reality or whether it represents the genuine wisdom of youthful aspiration. Goethe once said, “it is a mistake to think that because we get older we get wiser.” Perhaps there are insights that I have lost after experiencing “the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune?” But more likely I have traded certain insights for others. A dolphin’s perception is neither better nor worse than our own, and perhaps much the same can be said for the Romanticism of youth.

One wonders why the mistakes one makes in life have to be so often full of happiness. I recall the blissful week lying in the arms of a nineteen year-old with a body like a swan and a mind like a computer. I can remember looking into her innocent blue eyes and not feeling anything but a total and complete sense of the rightness of the cosmos. Everything is just as it is, nor can it become something it is not. At that moment the law of non-contradiction ruled the universe, and who was I to alter an unalterable law? But the pleasure was purchased at the expense of future pain, and can anything like that truly be called good? Does karma condemn us to an eternal balance of rights and wrongs or does it work towards an ultimate escape from the cycle of punishment? Eventually we will know, one might think. But that too can be called into question.

For Heraclitus “Nature hides itself,” and how much is this true for human nature as well. Maybe we are merely too primitive to understand ourselves and nature will correct our blindness through future evolution. On the other hand it may be intrinsic to our condition: like the eye that tries to see itself, we are condemned to see only a reflection, a perspective like one of the many possible shapes in a Cubist painting. The truth is out there, Mulder says to his skeptical colleague Skully, trying to convince her of the existence of extra-terrestrials, and though she disagrees, she must affirm his motto since she is a woman of science. But any philosopher will now tell you that the notion of truth itself is on shaky ground. This was already pointed out years ago by that pre-postmodernist Pontius Pilate who asked Jesus “What is truth?” then promptly walked away, as if to signal that there can be no answer to this interminable question. But this raises another question: is truth the ultimate seduction, or is it that which will truly set us free? And are you a saint if you choose one answer and a reprobate if you choose the other? Of course posing the question this way presupposes that there is a truth.